Since last summer, the South Bay Hospital District has been transforming itself from the operator of a community hospital into a foundation capable of providing nearly $1 million a year for public health programs in Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach.
The evolution has been hampered, however, by an undertow of political squabbling since the election of a new board member last November changed the majority on the district's governing body.
Some directors say the bickering has crippled the agency, prevented it from getting on with the business of giving grants for public health programs and shortchanged residents of the three beach cities who elect the five-member board and pay about $350,000 in district taxes each year.
And even with the firing last month of the district's first executive director--a victim of politics, according to some--board members say the political situation is going to be hard to mend.
"Politics changed the board," said Virginia D. Fischer, a board member since 1972. "The board has been rather impotent in bringing about new programs simply because of underlying issues of leadership and who likes whom."
"We have been hampered by the political situation," said board member Jean G. McMillan, who was first elected in 1980. She said the board has made only two minor grants since it initiated a five-year program more than a year ago, to increase the number of nurses and health aides and provide health education at four South Bay school districts. The board recently voted $286,000 for the second year of the program.
The newly elected board member, Eva Snow, said the people of the three cities that make up the district "have been shortchanged. It should not be taking us this long to give grants."
The divisiveness affecting the board is seldom reflected in its votes, which more often than not are unanimous. And during the past year, most of the board's time has been spent in winding up hospital business, litigation and listening to reports from the staff.
The board is considering six grant applications seeking a total of $181,000. Recommendations for approval or disapproval are expected to be given to the full board Thursday by a grants committee made up of Fischer and Snow. At one time, the board had planned to fund programs by July 1.
A feud pitting Snow against Fischer and McMillan appears to lie at the heart of the board's problems.
"Since Eva came on the board, no one is able to function," said McMillan. "She has not learned one thing about the duties of a public official or about the district and its role."
Fischer said Snow came to the board with "preconceived notions" and delayed meeting with her on the grants proposals until Fischer made an issue of it at a board meeting.
"It is the obligation of all elected officials to work with the people they are elected with," she said.
But Snow contends that she is not the problem. Instead, she said, Fischer and McMillan resent the fact that she defeated one-term board member Richard L. Fruin Jr. in November and broke up the old board majority.
"They still think they're the old hospital board," Snow said. The board operated the South Bay Hospital until it leased it to a private company last year.
Fischer and McMillan deny that they and Fruin dominated the board to the exclusion of others. "We discussed issues until we had unanimity," McMillan said.
McMillan said she is afraid that Snow's husband, Redondo Beach City Councilman Archie Snow, may try to use his wife's position to dominate the board for political purposes. Calling Snow "the sixth member of the board," she said he "controls the Redondo Beach City Council and wants to use the hospital district to feather his own political nest."
Although Archie Snow denied playing a role in hospital affairs, he noted that McMillan and Fischer supported his opponent, Redondo Beach city school board member Val Dombrowski, in last May's city election.
"That did not make me feel lovingly," Snow said. "What goes around comes around. If they'd leave me alone, I'd leave them alone."
Eva Snow said her husband does not "butt into" her activities on the hospital board.
Contending that political turmoil is being exaggerated, board President Gerald R. Witt said there was political "dissension at the beginning" but "things are now being straightened out and it is not affecting the functioning of the board."
He said that in its transition from a board running a hospital to a grant-giving foundation, the district "has been trying to go slow and do things the right way. Things may not have gone as fast as the public anticipated, but that was for a reason."
Leaders in the beach communities appear to be patient about the district's progress. "I expected them to take time getting organized, and then I'm looking forward to expanded health care in the area," said Manhattan Beach City Councilman Russell Lesser.