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ELECTIONS / MEASURES

Foes of County Clinic Proposal Seek Information on Alternative Plans

February 21, 1996|CARLOS V. LOZANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Five weeks away from a countywide vote on whether a $51-million outpatient clinic should be added to the Ventura County Medical Center, opponents of the proposal are demanding to see if officials already have alternative plans to build the project even if voters turn it down.

In the latest in a series of legal moves keeping county officials on the defensive in the increasingly heated ballot fight, Taxpayers for Quality Health Care has cited the California Public Records Act in a request for all public documents pertaining to Measure X, the March 26 referendum on the clinic project.

The Community Memorial Hospital-sponsored group also has asked for documents referring to any communications between county officials and former Supervisor Madge Schaefer or the campaign organization supporting the clinic, Saving Money as Responsible Taxpayers, or SMART. Schaefer is a spokeswoman for the group.

The request that the Board of Supervisors and other county officials produce all pertinent documents was made by James Parrinello, an attorney representing the Community Memorial-sponsored group, in a Feb. 15 letter asking for county records within 10 days.

In addition to the supervisors, the letter was also addressed to Pierre Durand, director of the county's Health Care Agency, and Tom Mahon, auditor-controller.

Parrinello could not be reached for comment Monday.

And Laura Dahlgren, a spokeswoman for the Community Memorial group, remained tight-lipped about the circumstances that led to the document request. "We think the letter speaks for itself," she said.

County Counsel James McBride said officials would comply with the request.

"Whatever documents are available to the public will be turned over," he said. "Everybody is going through their files to see what they have, so we can pull it together and send it over."

McBride and county officials said they knew of no alternative financing or building plans for the clinic project, other than what has already been approved by the Board of Supervisors.

"That appears to be a concern they have, but I don't know of any [alternative plans] at this time," Durand said.

As for communications with Schaefer, Durand said she had made a formal request for some county reports on the clinic project about two weeks ago on behalf of SMART. He said he was not certain if the documents were delivered.

But Durand pointed out that before any request for documents is granted, it must first be cleared with county counsel.

Supervisor Susan Lacey said she had no communications with Schaefer or the SMART group on the clinic project.

"If they had just called me up and asked me, they could have saved all this money they spent on fancy, out-of-the-area lawyers to send me a letter," she said. The supervisor said she viewed the letter as just another attempt by the Community Memorial group to keep county officials from speaking out about the project.

Last week, lawyers for Taxpayers for Quality Health Care threatened to hold the supervisors personally liable if they said or did anything that could be construed as campaigning for the clinic. As a result, the supervisors canceled a Feb. 13 informational forum on the project.

The group's lawyers also accused the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce of taking sides by inviting a county hospital official to speak at a chamber meeting last week, even though the business organization was told that a spokesperson for Taxpayers for Quality Health Care could not attend. The chamber went ahead with the meeting, and Community Memorial sent an attorney to take notes on the presentation.

Community Memorial Hospital, situated two blocks from the county medical center in Ventura, opposes the proposed clinic--which would consolidate the services of five smaller clinics already operating near the county hospital--in part because it believes the county will use the facility to lure away some of Community Memorial's private patients.

Community Memorial put Measure X on the March 26 ballot in an attempt to kill the financing plan for the clinic, saying that local taxpayers could end up with the entire bill if federal construction money dries up.

County supervisors approved the sale of $51 million in bond-like certificates to build the clinic, with the money expected to be repaid with a combination of hospital revenues and federal grants.

But Community Memorial officials argue that the grant money could be lost because of Congress's threatened health-care cuts.

County officials say the grant money has already been authorized and there is little chance that the county would not get it.

They have stressed that if voters reject the financing plan for the clinic, the grant money earmarked for Ventura County could go elsewhere.

County officials said the purpose of the new clinic is not to attract private patients as Community Memorial alleges, but instead to consolidate the five specialty clinics near the Ventura County Medical Center at an annual savings to the county of about $1 million in rent.

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