Has board lost public’s trust?

Published 1:04 pm Sunday, December 19, 2010

Staff Writer

Do most Beaufort County residents trust their county commissioners to make the right decision about the future of Beaufort County Medical Center?
The answer to that question depends on who you ask, and it’s unlikely any of the respondents has a definitive reply.
“I can’t speak for all the public. I’ll just say everybody’s got their own opinion out there,” said Commissioner Jay McRoy. “I think one of the things that has disheartened the public is it’s been drug out, and it’s been drug out too long.”
In an unscientific Web poll, the Daily News asked its readers to weigh in on the question of whether the commissioners will “do the right thing when it comes to the hospital.”
Of a relatively small “sampling,” represented by 185 total votes, 31 said “yes,” 120 said “no” and 34 weren’t sure.
The Web poll didn’t amount to conclusive proof of anything, but the results seemed to reflect the uncertain tone of the debate surrounding the fate of the cash-strapped Beaufort Regional Health System.
The BRHS-run medical center could be taken over by one of four suitors that has forwarded lease, management or ownership proposals.
The BRHS Board of Commissioners could pick one of these four suitors as a partner for BRHS.
Because the county owns the hospital, the county commissioners will have final say over who will manage or own the medical facility.
Some of the complaints lodged against the county board online and in the Daily News’ Sound Off and letters to the editor columns suggest these leading officials are prolonging the selection of a BRHS partner unnecessarily, a charge most of the commissioners deny.
“I think the county board of commissioners has retained the (public’s) trust because we’ve committed to a procedure that is fair and that is open, and as soon we receive something from the county hospital board we will act upon it promptly — and I think the citizens know that,” said Commissioner Robert Cayton.
McRoy seemed less confident that the public still trusts the commissioners to “do the right thing” for BRHS and the people it serves.
McRoy recalled that, as the commissioners were deliberating the county budget in late June, they voted 5-2 in favor of receiving a recommendation from the hospital board within 120 days.
A check of county records showed that, on June 29, the commissioners resolved to request the hospital board make a recommendation on a suitor by around the end of October.
Voting for the nonbinding resolution were McRoy, Cayton, Chairman Jerry Langley, Commissioner Al Klemm and Commissioner Hood Richardson, who serves as secretary-treasurer of the hospital board.
Voting against the resolution were Commissioners Ed Booth and Stan Deatherage.
Since this vote, only McRoy and Klemm have chosen to speak openly about their favored BRHS suitor. These two commissioners have endorsed University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina as the partner they contend is most qualified to forge a relationship with BRHS.
The other commissioners have declined to express a preference or have said they haven’t made up their minds.
Langley in particular has been adamant that the selection process must play out before the commissioners can comment on hospital suitors.
A call seeking further comment from Langley wasn’t immediately returned.
Daily News research has shown the commissioners have no legal obligation to stay mum on the hospital debate, and no state statute bars them from expressing opinions on publicly available proposals like the ones submitted by the BRHS suitors.
In fact, county sources confirmed that while negotiations with the suitors are ongoing, actual contract negotiations haven’t begun.
It’s been said the commissioners would have a fiduciary responsibility to keep quiet on the specifics of contract negotiations. The commissioners could maintain “radio silence” by refusing to comment publicly or entering into closed sessions during their meetings under an exemption to the N.C. Open Meetings Law.
McRoy and other observers have pointed out the fact that the suitors’ proposals have been public knowledge for months, and that no selection has been made.
“It’s been excuse after excuse, and I think that has been very disheartening to the public,” he said. “They’re ready to get it over with and get it behind them.”
At first, Richardson declined to comment on the public-trust question, but changed his mind over the course of an interview, blaming past management for the hospital’s troubles.
“I haven’t lost the public’s trust,” he said. “There’s no public trust lost in what I’m doing. Everybody I’ve talked to has said, ‘Yeah, you were right, they were tanking the place because of bad management.’”
Asked what his constituents were telling him about this issue, Richardson apparently advocated for continued local control of the hospital.
“My people are telling me that they want the hospital to stay in Beaufort County,” he said. “They don’t see why the place should be in the financial condition (it’s in) right now, and if the hospital board and the commissioners had done their job it wouldn’t be.”
Stan Deatherage, Richardson’s frequent ally on the board, agreed the hospital should stay in local hands.
“Ultimately, the best thing we could do is retain local control, and that would take some different management tactics than have been employed in the last 12 months since they discovered there was a problem,” Deatherage stated. “Until that board of commissioners can find it in their hearts to listen to Commissioner Richardson and totally understand where he’s coming from, I don’t believe that’s going to happen.”
Ed Booth applauded his fellow board members for the way they’ve handled the situation.
“One thing we can honestly say — and there have been some firestorms — but overall the commissioners have handled it very well,” Booth said. “Our chairman (Langley) asked us to let the process work. We have tried to allow that to happen without getting off the deep end. Every now and again we have a few temper tantrums.”
Al Klemm said the results of November’s midterm election, in which all three incumbent commissioners were re-elected, implied voters were pleased with the way the commissioners were doing business.
“That really surprised me with so many people sort of being upset about the issue,” Klemm said.
Klemm faulted some of the major players in the hospital matter for what he contends were too-frank discussions about the future of BRHS employees.
“Let the hospital professionals run it,” Klemm asserted.
He suggested the public-private components of the hospital, necessitated by the county’s ownership, have been detrimental to the health system’s employees and the public.
“I think the sooner the hospital’s away from the county commissioners, the better it’s going to be,” Klemm said. “I think the people are tired of it.”
He added, “I think the average citizen trusts the average politician … less than a used car dealer.”