During May elections, Ector County saw a major shift in leadership on the county-operated Medical Center Hospital Board – an expected change considering lingering controversy stemming from decisions made by the previous board, such as retracting medical coverage for hospital retirees and arbitrarily purchasing land during an economic downturn. Yet the board’s recent summer budget deliberations revealed that issues relating to finances and transparency within the hospital may run deeper.

A drop in the hospital’s bond rating in March prompted Medical Center Health System (MCHS) to hire a financial consulting firm, Financial Resource Group (FRG). FRG would essentially vet the hospital’s operations with the purpose of identifying opportunities for improving cost effectiveness. While hiring such a firm likely came at a hefty price tag, their report served as an opportunity for the board to incorporate suggested changes into the 2017-2018 fiscal budget, with the goal of steering the hospital in a direction of financial recovery.

Yet despite board members’ requests, they were denied the report by administrators upon the start of budget season – forcing one board member, Bryn Dodd of District 1, to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the hospital.

“There’s no reason I should have had to do that … that’s absolutely not okay,” said Dodd about filing a FOIA request. “How are we going to make any changes and make financially sound decisions if we don’t know what direction we should go in?”

FRG’s report was given to the board towards the end of budget deliberations, giving board members little time to review the suggested changes before a budget vote – an issue that District 5 Board Member Don Hallmark says has happened more than once.

“They will literally present us with data that we’re supposed to vote on right before a meeting or the night before,” said Hallmark. “It’s ridiculous that we have to file a freedom of information request on our own information. And we have to do this all the time because the leadership is so secretive. It’s impossible to go forward and make this deal work better if you have to fight for basic, simple information.”

The proposed hospital budget and tax increase passed by a 4-2 vote, with Hallmark and Dodd voting against both measures.

In addition to hospital board members, the Odessa American (OA) similarly requested a copy of FRG’s report, in which they too were denied. According to the OA, after filing a FOIA request, MCHS cited Boeing vs. Paxton as a reason for not turning over the report. Boeing vs. Paxton, a Texas Supreme Court ruling that allows local governments and businesses to withhold public records if it could give an advantage to a competitor or bidder, has been deemed by many as a “monstrous loophole” in public records law that is “ripe for abuse.” MCHS has since forwarded the OA’s request to the attorney general’s office.

Additionally, there have been complaints by board members that hospital administrators held numerous meetings during the budget planning process in which important financial topics were discussed and only two board members were invited at a time – absolving them from having to comply with the Open Meetings Act. According to state law, meetings of less than a quorum of a governmental body are not subject to the Act and thus aren’t required to publish a public notice of the meeting.

With both Hallmark and Dodd’s campaigns focused on transparency and fiscal responsibility, Hallmark said, “Everything we campaigned on has been confirmed in that [FRG] report,” referencing issues with top-heavy management and other inefficiencies. “We campaigned on, first and foremost, having an open atmosphere of information. And we’ve found out that [hospital leadership] keeps it tight so they can control it. It’s been a ‘yes’ type of board and that’s why we’re in a deficit, sometimes you need to say no.”

Evident by the outcome of May’s election, the community’s trust in MCHS’s leadership is in need of repair and if the events from recent months are any indication, that repair may take longer than expected.

Lauren Melear

Lauren Melear leads the West Texas Bureau of Texas Scorecard. When not working, Lauren enjoys spending time with her husband and their dog, as well as cooking, working out, traveling to the hill country, and cheering on the fightin' Texas Aggies.