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Hospital Again Says Board Acted Illegally

May 11, 2000|GINA PICCALO

For the second time in six weeks, attorneys for Community Memorial Hospital have accused the Ventura County Board of Supervisors of illegally using public resources and board meetings to oppose a ballot measure that would transfer a $260-million tobacco settlement from county coffers to the administrators of private hospitals.

On Wednesday, attorneys for the Ventura hospital sent a 10-page letter to the county that said Supervisor John K. Flynn's comments during recent board meetings and the board's decision Tuesday to co-sponsor a public forum on the initiative are illegal attempts to interfere in a political campaign.

The letter was signed by James R. Parrinello, a lawyer with the Mill Valley firm Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor.

But Chief Assistant County Counsel Frank Sieh said the county has done nothing illegal.

"Once again, Mr. Parrinello has struck too soon and CMH's paranoid view of the county's intent has caused them to jump the gun," Sieh said. "Nothing has been done wrong."

The hospital launched the initiative after supervisors approved using about $10 million of the tobacco money to pay off a federal health-care penalty and beef up depleted general fund reserves.

The proposed ballot measure would turn over the entire projected tobacco settlement to private health-care providers, such as Community Memorial.

The letter cites a May 2 board meeting at which Flynn attacked the initiative as a "hostile takeover." It also castigates the supervisor for discussing at an April 18 meeting a book that opposes ballot initiatives.

But Flynn said his comments were legal because they referred to Community Memorial's 1996 ballot initiative known as Measure X, which blocked construction of a wing at the county hospital.

"I have the liberty to do what I'm doing because I'm tracing the history of Community Memorial," said Flynn, speaking from Washington, D. C., where he and the other board members are attempting to reduce a $15.3-million payoff over improper Medicare billings. "I'm free to talk about Measure X because it's history. Obviously, Community Memorial is ashamed of its history."

But the hospital contends that Flynn and other board members are violating taxpayers' civil rights by interfering in a political campaign.

"We are concerned about unlawful conduct that violates the civil rights of the initiative's proponents," hospital spokesman Mark Barnhill said.

The private nonprofit hospital Monday submitted nearly twice the number of signatures needed to qualify the measure for the November ballot, more than 38,000, almost a month ahead of schedule. Those signatures must now be validated.

In a March 29 letter, attorneys for Community Memorial warned supervisors that they may face legal sanctions for meeting in closed session to discuss pursuing legal action to block the hospital's initiative.

It warned that state law forbids the county from spending public money to campaign in favor of or against any ballot measure. And the letter accused the board of violating the Ralph M. Brown Act, which governs what issues an elected body may discuss in private.

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