Medical Center Hospital administration’s decision to withhold Ector County Hospital District board packets from the media and the public until after the board meets continues to cause concern among some board members and Freedom of Information Act experts.
District 1 board member Bryn Dodd said administration’s decision last month prompted her to request they put an item on Tuesday’s meeting agenda to discuss the issue, but she never received a response.
The board packet typically contains mostly updates on the hospital’s finances and additional information about items listed on the agenda the board is expected to discuss, and often, vote on. MCH receives both property tax from Ector County, as well as sales tax.
MCH President and CEO Rick Napper previously stated the board packet is only public information after the board decides on it, but Freedom of Information experts said what the entity is doing was wrong.
“I just don’t think that’s valid,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “If (board) members are getting it, it’s public information at that point.”
Napper also previously stated both he and the hospital’s attorney could provide “the exact statement that covers why we didn’t send that packet out.”
After numerous requests last month for the statute the hospital used to make that determination, the hospital’s lead attorney Ellie Bane said via email, “ECHD determined that Board packet information will be accessed by the Board members only prior to the Board meeting. The public may request the Board packet, as well as other documents, via the Public Information Act. In halting the previous practice of providing Board packets to the media, ECHD relied upon the Texas Open Meetings and Public Information Act.”
No specific statute was provided.
Dodd sent her request March 14 to discuss the topic via email to Board Chair Mary Thompson and Napper, per the board’s bylaws.
“I thought this would be a great opportunity for the board to discuss it together and come up with some kind of solution to address the issue that’s caused so much controversy in the last month or so,” she said.
When asked about the request prior to the regular board meeting Tuesday, Thompson said, “you never put me in the paper, so why ask me?”
She then said they were going to discuss the matter in executive session, but said she wasn’t sure which item on the agenda it was listed under.
The Open Meetings Act requires executive session items are covered under specific statutes and listed on board agendas.
“I would have to look it up. (It’s) probably legal matters, I would imagine — personnel (and) legal matters,” Thompson said before walking away.
Napper then said he thought Thompson was actually referring to his evaluation as CEO because Dodd had previously asked him about it.
Napper said the board does his review in executive session and this is his first one.
“The joint commission requires that I have an evaluation done,” he said, adding that it is an annual review. “The whole process is being made simpler because the one that we had here is not — it was very broad. It didn’t really give the board a lot of information.”
The agenda for Tuesday did not show the CEO, specifically, would be undergoing an annual review. Items listed under executive session on the agenda included: consultation with attorney regarding legal matter and legal issues; deliberation regarding exchange, lease or value of real property; deliberation and evaluation of officers and employees of ECHD; deliberation regarding negotiations for health care services; information that, if disclosed, would give advantage to a competitor; and advice, recommendations, opinions or other material reflecting the policymaking processes of ECHD.
Shannon said if the board were to evaluate the CEO, or discuss something of higher public interest, the entity would need to be more specific on the agenda so the public has an idea of what’s going on — even if it’s in executive session.
“The higher the level of interest, the more specific they need to be,” she said.
Shannon added it is also worth pointing out that board members have the right to free speech so they can come out after executive session and talk about what they discussed if they wish.
In other words, elected officials cannot tell other elected officials that they cannot publicly comment on any matter.
District 5’s Don Hallmark said Wednesday the board did not discuss the CEO’s evaluation.
In regard to board packets, Napper said Tuesday he wasn’t sure if the hospital’s attorney was even ready to talk about the issue.
“She’s still, she just went to a session to find out what is actually happening with board packets around the state of Texas to make sure we’re following the guidelines.”
When asked if he did not know whether they were following the guidelines, Napper said, “we believe we are, you guys (the Odessa American) are stating we’re not.”
Napper further said he is going to wait until executive session to talk to the attorney about it. When asked if it was listed as an item on the agenda Tuesday, he said it was not. When asked if any discussion about the board packets was taking place Tuesday, he said no.
Dodd said as soon as they went behind closed doors, she was confronted with concerns that a board packet had been “leaked” to the OA and asked if she was the person who leaked it.
“We (board members) have been told that information is confidential and not public record until the board discussed the documents,” Dodd said.
Shannon said even if a board member did send anyone the board packet that it is public information and “absolutely, board members can give that out.
“All they’re doing is supplying some public information to somebody. They’re trying to help the public understand what’s going on in the meeting — what’s wrong with that? It’s their duty. Good thing somebody’s trying to be transparent and protect the public’s right to know what’s going on.”
Hallmark said he believes they will come up with a solution that will benefit everybody.
“We want to be transparent, but we also want to make sure, our attorney wants to make sure she’s being compliant also,” he said. “I’m under the impression that our attorney feels like there’s an issue with it and she’s just trying to make sure the hospital is doing what’s right.”
On Wednesday, the hospital made the board packet for Tuesday’s meeting available on their website, mchodessa.com/dates-times-agendas.
Susan Thorton, MCH community relations manager, said Wednesday either Bane or assistant legal counsel Leah Robertson, would be the ones to answer any questions about the board packets now being posted to the website, but Robertson was out of the office Wednesday afternoon and Bane was unavailable.
The Odessa American has filed a complaint with the Texas Attorney General’s office about how the hospital is handling the board packets.
The board approved an almost $300,000 bid to relocate the MCH Pro-Care administration offices Tuesday. The hospital currently leases a building to house the offices. The newly approved bid will allow them to make renovations to the Center for Health and Wellness, located off Faudree Road, by building out existing shell space on the first floor of the building.
The move is expected to save the hospital money in the long run, District 5 board member Don Hallmark said.
The area of renovations would be 1,806 square feet and include six offices, a conference room, break room, copy room and reception area.
The project, which will total $298,000, will be funded through contingency capital. It is expected to produce a net present value of $111,001 over five years, a return on investment of 48.89% and has a payback period of 2.7 years.
IN OTHER BUSINESS, THE BOARD:
- Approved a bid for an upgrade to the HVAC systems on four isolation rooms in the central tower for $137,000.
- Approved the purchase of a Premier staffing management tool.
- Approved endowment funds distribution to TTUHSC-Permian Basin, Odessa College and UTPB.
- Approved a second agreement with Oberon Solar, LLC to provide property tax incentives for a solar project in Ector County.
- Heard an Emergency Department throughput improvements presentation.
- Heard a United Way of Odessa presentation.
- Heard a CMS Star Rating presentation.
- Heard a TTUHSC-Permian Basin report.
- Heard presentations and awards for April 2019 Associates of the Month and March Patient Satisfaction Winners.