MONTROSE – Residents of the northern San Juans who depend on Montrose Memorial Hospital for medical care were hoping last week that a court hearing in Montrose would result in a definitive resolution to the squabble between the hospital’s board and Montrose County Commissioners.
But after four days of testimony, District Judge Jeff Herron asked both sides to make yet another effort to settle the case prior to a ruling.
Commissioner David White spoke to representatives of San Miguel and Ouray counties at a Tri-County Workshop meeting in Ridgway on Monday, May 9, at the request of Ouray County Commissioner Lynn Padgett, who reiterated how very important the hospital is to the entire region.
White emphasized that there has been absolutely no compromise in the level of service at the hospital since the flap began in 2010. But he sounded wearied by the judge’s (lack of) decision. “We participated in informal negotiations in November and in formal mediation on December 10, 2010 in Denver. If the hospital board of trustees is willing, we will again make every attempt to reach a solution as requested by the judge.” But, he said, “We’ve tried twice. And it hasn’t worked. They walked away both times.”
While there are a number of issues of concern for the commissioners, the overarching ones involve the hospital board’s attempt to transform the publicly owned facility into a not-for-profit, 501c3 corporation. This was done, according to the commissioners, in secret, in the months leading up to the November 2010 elections. At that time, the trustees had feared the possible impacts of Colorado’s tax-slashing ballot measures 60 and 61, and Proposition 101 (none of which passed, as it turned out). Without involving the public, the trustees set up the nonprofit, appointed themselves to the board of the new entity, and wrote a lease agreement transferring all of the hospital’s assets – everything from cash to investment accounts to accounts receivable to the new $2 million Da Vinci surgical robot – to the corporation.
At Monday's meeting, San Miguel County Commissioner Art Goodtimes asked if that action indeed “cuts out county oversight” of the hospital for the next 50 years, per the terms of the lease.
Yes, said Commissioner Ron Henderson. “I want the public to stay involved. I don’t want public monies to go to a private entity.”
White told The Watch later, “There is no guarantee what value the public will get back in 2060.”
White did clarify at the Ridgway meeting that all parties agree that the hospital board has the right to rent or lease hospital assets. But, he emphasized, “This is a sale. We believe it is a sale of the hospital without a vote of the public. That’s why we’ve been in court.”
The commissioners are also troubled by what White called “the co-mingling of the two boards; they’re one and the same. And they both have the same lawyer, John Brooks.
“It’s a huge conflict of interest,” White said. “It’s good-old-boy politics at its best.”
The county requested, and won, a temporary injunction to prevent the hospital trustees (who were themselves appointed by the county commissioners) from carrying out their plan. But, after hearing both sides, Judge Herron called the lawyers to the bench and admonished them to try again to negotiate a deal.
“Hopefully, we’ll make another run at it,” concluded White.