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Will Lee Refuses To Recuse

Will Lee is the current vice mayor of the City of Fort Bragg. He is also the director of medical staff services at Mendocino Coast District Hospital (MCDH). When supporters of that institution's attempt to pass a parcel tax came before the Fort Bragg City Council on May 14th to get said Council's backing for a parcel tax, one would reasonably assume that anyone employed by the hospital would recuse himself from the matter. Councilman Bernie Norvell recused himself from the hospital parcel tax matter because of a financial stake he has in property rented to the hospital. Mayor Lindy Peters was absent, so Mr. Lee stayed on to chair the meeting during the proposal aimed at gaining the city council's formal approval of a resolution in support of Measure C (the $144 per parcel per year tax). Vice Mayor Lee first declared that he had planned to recuse himself until he learned that Mayor Peters would not be attending. Lee went on to say that because Mayor Peters absence and his recusal would leave the body without a quorum, he had changed his mind and refused to recuse himself  — wouldn't Johnnie Cochran have loved “Refuse to recuse”? — citing “Title 9, Chapter 2.”

What Will Lee fails to realize is the effect of his own words. He stated that he originally planned to recuse himself. He only changed his mind when the absence of the mayor meant that this proposal, which, again by his own words, was near and dear to him, would not be heard due to an absence of a quorum. Furthermore, Lee stated, or implied (whichever way one wants to quibble) that his “refuse to recuse” decision was necessitated because this was such an important issue. The inherent problem for Lee, and the public, will occur in the future when Mr. Lee decides that an issue isn't important enough for him to invoke his “refuse to recuse” excuse. Of course, there is the obvious, and in this case fairly clear, appearance of a conflict of interest: Mr. Lee is employed by the hospital and getting a city council backing would help lead to financial gain for his employer.

In the last year Will Lee has turned into a disturbing apologist for MCDH. At a November 14, 2017 Board of Directors meeting Lee stated, “The misinformation that's spreading around this town that this hospital is suffering under this administration is just flat wrong. There's no distress in this hospital…”

Contrasted with Lee's description were multiple MCDH employees out on stress leave, stress directly attributable to the behavior of Lee's administrative superiors at the time, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Bob Edwards and (now former) Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Wade Sturgeon. Lee's comments were heard directly before a closed session at which the Board of Directors was evaluating the job performance of Sturgeon, who was gone from the CFO job by night's end.

In contrast to Lee's claims about no distress at MCDH was a November 8, 2017, AVA article authored by Cindy Richards, who had worked under Sturgeon's direction. That piece concluded with these words about the hospital's top two administrators, “These corrupt, contemptuous men are strutting around like saints begging for taxpayer subsidies claiming they’re necessary for the betterment of our community, while harassing, threatening, terminating and covering up unconscionable behavior.”

Which takes us to the case of Hardin vs. Mendocino Coast District Hospital, Bob Edwards, Steve Lund, and Wade Sturgeon. The complaints against the defendants include: 1. Violation of Labor Code Section 98.6 and 1102.5; 2. Violation of California False Claims Act, Government Code Section 12563; 3. Violation of Federal False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. Section 3730; 4. Violation of U.S. Constitution, First Amendment, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983; 5. Discrimination; 6. Associational Discrimination; 7. Harassment/Hostile Work Environment; 8. Retaliation; 9. Failure to Take All Reasonable Steps Necessary to Prevent Discrimination and Harassment in Violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act; 10. Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress; 11. Negligent Infliction of Emotional Distress; 12. Negligent Supervision, Hiring and Retention; 13. Defamation and; 14. Labor Code Section 2699, et seq for violations of Labor Code Sections 98.6 and 1102.5.

See the AVA piece of January 10, 2018, for more specific details regarding some of the allegations made by the hospital's former Chief Human Resources Officer (Ellen Hardin). As of this spring, the case is on the docket of federal court judge Jon Tigar in the Northern District of California. It is in a phase called “Private ADR.” Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is a type of private mediation federal courts use to hold down the number of cases heard before a judge and/or jury. If possible, this pretrial mediation settles cases before they actually reach a courtroom. However, the stakes in Hardin v. Mendocino Coast District Hospital, Bob Edwards, Steve Lund, and Wade Sturgeon are high enough and the charges are so numerous that mediation may not resolve the matter.

Much in this case relates to false claims regarding money. Money is at the core of MCDH's problems, as in the hospital's failure to maintain a coding and billing system that adequately collects legitimate charges. Those failures have amounted to losing out on multiple millions of dollars per year for several years running. Interim CFO John Parigi, who was only on the job from late December, 2017, to late March, 2018, estimated that by the time he got a handle on what had been going on, he located about $1.1 million in these lost billing charges during February and March. Of course, CEO Edwards did not like Parigi showing him up and fired him before Parigi could find more.

Let's move on to those who are vocally supporting the parcel tax and the misleading information they are putting out for public consumption. At that May 14th meeting of the Fort Bragg City Council, John Allison, who has served on both the hospital's finance and planning committees, extolled the quality of care and patient safety at MCDH. Apparently, Mr. Allison didn't bother to read the federal government study that gives patient ratings in eleven different categories. In all eleven categories Howard Hospital, 31.5 miles away in Willits, had a higher rating than MCDH. In all but one of the eleven categories, MCDH scored below the national average.

It's not all that surprising that Mr. Allison stood up shilling for MCDH. He sat by on the finance committee, backing former CFO Wade Sturgeon right up until Sturgeon left the building. Allison, who is a volunteer with the Westport Fire Department, may do good things in that position, but he doesn't attend MCDH Board meetings and perpetually is a figurative excuse maker for the status quo under CEO Edwards' direction.

Dr. Jason Kirkman is a more difficult case. By all accounts he is a respected physician, but he has come out vocally in favor of the parcel tax, citing the decreases in Medi-Cal payments as a reason for the hospital's distress. The truth is that all hospitals are receiving less these days from Medi-Cal. Kirkman makes no mention of the millions lost annually due to a lack in unified electronic record keeping systems. The North Coast Family Health Center (NCFHC) he primarily works at has a different electronic record system than the hospital itself uses. Within the hospital there are two more, distinctly different, electronic record systems. The failure to communicate between these three differing systems is the chief culprit in the loss of very collectible dollars at the hospital. At best, one may presume Kirkman is so nose-down in performing his own job that he's unaware of the rot at the core of MCDH.

However, Dr. Kirkman should have done some proofreading and editing before he wrote a letter to the city council stating that if the parcel tax fails “Affluent retirees might choose not to live in an area that doesn't support the continued strength of its local hospital.” This is a tired piece of fear based propaganda that a physician should know won't play well, particularly to his non-affluent patients, not to mention non-affluent voters.

The hospital will not close because of this parcel tax failing at the ballot box. MCDH is something akin to a drug or gambling addict. It needs to bottom out (it's hard to believe its CEO can go much lower in his administrating, but don't be surprised when he does), fully implement a unified electronic record system, elect Board of Directors who will question this CEO (and the new CFO if need be). As it is we're suffering from a Board of Directors (with the lone exception of Dr. Peter Glusker) without the wherewithal to perform their duty on behalf of the public.

In that regard, on May 18th, Dr. Lucas Campos submitted his formal resignation. He was one-fourth of the problem. Hopefully, there will be at least four candidates out there for the open seats on the MCDH Board who are just out to right the ship and not after the position as an ego boost or to continue the sucking up to an incredibly dysfunctional CEO.

One Comment

  1. Kathy May 23, 2018

    Robert’s Rules say that Lee should have allowed the other board members to vote whether or not he should have recused himself (with him out of the room). It is also true that he can’t be stopped from voting if he fails to recuse himself for whatever reason.

    The remedy to such behavior remains at the ballot box or via recall petition.

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