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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Hospital Files Petitions for Initiative

Politics: Community Memorial turns in nearly double the number of needed signatures for ballot measure to divert tobacco settlement funds.

May 09, 2000|CATHERINE BLAKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Community Memorial Hospital has collected 38,519 signatures, nearly double the number needed, for a proposed November initiative that would transfer control of $260 million in tobacco settlement dollars from county government to the administrators of private hospitals.

The private, nonprofit Ventura hospital submitted the signatures Monday, almost a month ahead of schedule, which hospital officials hope indicates potential popular support for the measure in November.

If approved by Ventura County voters, all of the money the county is scheduled to receive from a national lawsuit against tobacco companies would be diverted to local private hospitals, including Community Memorial. That hospital's administrators have said they intend to use the money to pay for indigent care and other health care programs.

The county Board of Supervisors would have no control over the funds and the money could not be used for health care provided by the county's public hospital. Community Memorial launched the initiative after supervisors approved using about $10 million of the tobacco money to pay off a federal health care penalty and to beef up depleted general fund reserves.

"We feel tremendously gratified that the initiative has been embraced so broadly throughout the county," said Mark Barnhill, a Community Memorial spokesman. "It indicates there is strong support among voters, as well as a keen understanding of the need to spend the tobacco funds on health care and not to pay fines or reduce debt or other non-health care purposes."

Community Memorial collected the signatures over three weeks, and on Monday it turned over 11 large boxes of petitions to the County Government Center. Elections chief Bruce Bradley said the county has 30 days to verify that each signature is valid.

A minimum of 21,000 signatures of registered voters is needed to qualify the initiative for placement on the November ballot, Bradley said. A sampling will be analyzed, using a computer that compares the petition signature with that on the voter registration affidavit.

It will take a squad of six elections employees about a week to verify at least 3% of the total submitted, or 1,156. If a large number are invalid, the whole group would need to be reviewed, Bradley said.

"We usually have about 20% of the signatures that are not good," the elections chief said. "That happens because people are not registered to vote or they've moved or people sign it six or seven times, because they've been approached that many times."

Barnhill said the hospital didn't want to take any chances, so it set a goal of collecting between 30,000 and 35,000 signatures. In addition to posting professional signature gatherers outside shops and malls, the hospital mailed individual petitions to 100,000 households.

Community Memorial administrators have experience running a successful initiative drive. Four years ago, the hospital spent about $1.6 million on a campaign to block neighboring Ventura County Medical Center, the county's public hospital that it views as a rival, from building a $56-million outpatient wing. It remains the costliest political campaign in county history.

Supervisor John K. Flynn said he remains hopeful that a compromise can be reached to divide the tobacco settlement money among all the hospitals that serve the indigent. County Chief Administrative Officer Harry Hufford has been meeting with representatives of the private hospitals, but no agreement has been reached, officials said.

Flynn said he believes there is growing support that the money should remain in the county's control. He said the Ventura County Medical Society, a professional group representing physicians across the county, recently announced that it is opposed to Community Memorial's initiative.

"Community Memorial must be going through a sweating period right now, because many of the doctors have taken a position against the initiative," Flynn said. "When you get practitioners against it, you have to question it."

Barnhill disagreed, saying the initiative will be on the ballot if the signatures are verified.

"Almost 40,000 voters want to decide in November how to spend this money," he said. "This is now a public policy issue that will be . . . decided by the will of the people."

Opponents of the initiative point out that the deck is stacked against the Board of Supervisors, because while private hospitals can spend millions pushing the initiative, the county is prohibited from taking a public position.

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