Los Angeles County supervisors acknowledged Tuesday that they had discussed plans for the embattled Martin Luther King Jr.-Harbor Hospital in closed-door sessions, in what a good-government expert called a violation of the state's open-meeting law.
The discussion, which the county's top lawyer defended, is the latest example of questions arising over the supervisors' handling of meetings about the Willowbrook hospital.
Supervisors Gloria Molina and Zev Yaroslavsky said during Tuesday's public meeting that board members had talked several times in private with county health chief Dr. Bruce Chernof about potential contingency plans should King-Harbor lose federal funding and be forced to close.
"We would be prepared to discuss those contingency plans as you did with us last week and the week before in closed session and as you have individually with us over a period of months," Yaroslavsky said to Chernof on Tuesday.
The hospital recently received a 23-day ultimatum to correct dangerous conditions in the emergency room. Last month, a 43-year-old woman racked with pain on the hospital lobby floor died after pleading in vain for treatment. In February and early March, a man at King-Harbor lingered with a brain tumor for four days without receiving treatment. Family and friends finally drove him to another county hospital, where he underwent emergency surgery.
King-Harbor is slated to receive a final federal inspection in July that will determine its fate.
State law requires that if the supervisors are to discuss matters in closed session, they must post those topics on their agenda. Over the last month, such postings have included the May 9 death of Edith Isabel Rodriguez -- who died in the custody of county police after lying untreated on the hospital floor for 45 minutes -- and "significant exposure to litigation." No items related to emergency plans for the hospital's closure have been listed.
"A board can't simply close the doors out of concern that someone might sue if they heard what was being discussed," said Terry Francke, general counsel and founder of Californians Aware, a nonprofit, open-government advocacy group. "If that were the standard, you'd never hear discussion about anything politically controversial in open session."
County Counsel Raymond G. Fortner Jr. said the board did not violate the open-meeting law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, although contingency planning had been mentioned in closed discussions of possible litigation against the county stemming from Rodriguez's death.
"In my legal opinion, the board has not strayed beyond what it's allowed to talk about in the context of significant exposure to litigation," Fortner said. Closed-door discussions were "focused on the circumstances of the patient's death," he said, "not on topics like contingency planning. The board understands that anything like that has to be vetted publicly."
Fortner said that he occasionally guides supervisors' private discussions away from certain topics to comply with the Brown Act.
Yaroslavsky said that closed-session conversations touched only briefly on contingency plans for replacing a potentially shuttered hospital.
"You can't compartmentalize your conversations," he said, adding that closure of the hospital could lead to litigation against the county. "The discussion is very free-flowing, and it's healthy to do it that way. It doesn't mean it's a violation of the Brown Act."
Yaroslavsky said that the board took no action on hospital emergency plans in closed session and that any such proposals would have to be discussed in public.
Molina expressed frustration Tuesday that hospital policy had been debated in private in meetings with all five supervisors. Under the Brown Act, public officials can discuss only personnel matters or possible litigation in closed meetings and may not formulate policy.
"Things are getting, to me, swept under the rug," Molina said.
She also complained that county Department of Health Services officials had withheld information about patient-care lapses from board members. "I'm finding that out from reading my newspaper," she said, "not from the department that is responsible in letting me know what is going on."
County health officials have refused multiple requests by The Times to release the hospital security video showing Rodriguez lying on the floor unattended. Health officials told the newspaper that because the video was submitted to the Sheriff's Department as part of a criminal investigation, it was exempt under the Public Records Act.
The board's actions have raised questions about secrecy before. In 2004, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley found that supervisors broke the law by deciding in confidential meetings to shut down the trauma center at the hospital, formerly known as King/Drew. The Times sued the county; a judge ruled that the county's actions were justified.
The district attorney launched another investigation of a possible Brown Act violation this spring after a member of the public complained that supervisors had discussed King-Harbor funding in secret.
In most cases, the district attorney's office must receive a complaint from the public about a potential Brown Act violation before initiating an inquiry, said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. John Spillane.