Supervisor Maggie Erickson canceled plans Thursday to send seven Health Care Agency officials to a conference in Maui early next year because she said the $16,000 trip had caused "so much negative publicity."
In a memo sent Thursday, Erickson instructed Health Care Agency Director Phillipp K. Wessels to cancel all plans for him and other county health-care officials to attend the Estes Park Institute conference Jan. 27 to Feb. 1 on ways to improve hospital administration.
Erickson and hospital administrators have stressed the importance of the conference as a source of ideas for the continuing reorganization of the Ventura County Medical Center. They said information from past conferences helped them restore financial health to the Medical Center, which was $20 million in debt four years ago.
"In spite of the merits of this conference, so much negative publicity has been created that I am returning to my original direction to cancel the trip," Erickson wrote.
As chairwoman of the Medical Center Oversight Committee, Erickson had originally approved the decision to send a nine-member delegation to the Maui conference to represent the committee.
But late last month, she and county Chief Administrative Officer Richard Wittenberg decided not to accompany the seven health-care officials to Maui, each citing different reasons.
Erickson said she would not go because the conference dates conflict with her marriage and honeymoon plans. Wittenberg said the conference fell at a time when he should remain in Ventura County to assist two newly elected county supervisors--Maria VanderKolk and Vicki Howard--during their first month on the job.
In announcing that she would not attend, Erickson suggested that the committee reschedule another conference later in the year so she and Wittenberg could also attend and brainstorm with health officials about new administrative policies.
More recently, Erickson said she was leaning toward sending a smaller delegation of health-care officials to the conference to gather information and report back to the committee. Erickson had said a final decision would be made at a committee meeting this morning; however, she short-circuited the discussion with her memo Thursday.
Erickson's decision came as a surprise to county health-care officials. "We will comply with the direction of Supervisor Erickson," said Pierre Durand, the county's assistant health-care director. "As she indicates in the memo, the conference does have a lot of merits."
Jere Robings, executive director of the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn., said Erickson made a wise decision because of the poor public image of using tax dollars to go to a tropical resort in the middle of winter.
"This may be a really exciting, information-filled conference," Robings said. "But they could probably do just as well by sending a representative or spending the money to bring the expert to Ventura to benefit all of the county employees. It probably would be less expensive than sending them all to Maui."
Erickson was unavailable for comment Thursday. In an interview last week, she said she was disturbed at the expense of the trip during a time when the Health Care Agency was being squeezed by the shrinking state and county budgets.
She also said the time and location "raises the question, 'Is it a legitimate conference being in Maui in the wintertime?' "
The Estes Park Institute, based in Englewood, Colo., offers six other conferences next year. They are scheduled to be held at Kona, Hawaii; LaQuinta, Calif.; Hilton Head, S.C.; Vail Valley, Colo.; Monterey, Calif., and Naples, Fla.
The institute, which caters primarily to private hospital administrators and trustees, prefers to hold conferences at resorts to attract clients. Ventura County medical authorities are among the few public officials to attend the institute's conferences, an institute spokeswoman said.
But county officials say the conferences have taught them how to run the county Medical Center as if it were a private hospital, saving taxpayers millions of dollars in subsidies.