A new report from Jefferson Parish Inspector General David McClintock provides yet more evidence of the dysfunctional process used to pick a private company to manage the parish’s two public hospitals.
That flawed process continues, and we must wonder, given the inept way that parish officials have handled this important decision, how Jefferson Parish residents can have confidence in the eventual result.
The parish’s two public hospital boards had a series of closed-door meetings to consider which private management firm should run East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center.
The Louisiana Open Meetings Law generally requires that public bodies deliberate in full public view, but state law allows closed deliberations — called executive sessions — through a handful of exemptions. One unwise exemption allows hospital boards to meet behind closed doors if board members are discussing marketing issues or a hospital’s strategic plan.
McClintock was allowed to monitor executive sessions during some meetings of the two hospital boards, and in a new report, he urges officials to seek an opinion from the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office about the legality of the discussions held in those secretive gatherings. His report questions whether much of what was discussed by the boards in private is allowed “by the narrow exceptions to the open meetings law.”
The report suggests that no action be taken until the attorney general’s opinion is received.
Perhaps even more troublesome is the report’s mention of a Sept. 9 meeting in which members of the hospital boards took several votes. The state Open Meetings Law doesn’t typically allow public bodies to vote in private, but board members have argued that an exemption allows them to do so.
The exemption to the Open Meetings Law regarding public hospitals is too vague, which is an open invitation to abuse. McClintock is right to urge officials to seek guidance from the attorney general on this issue, but ultimately, the Legislature and the governor should eliminate this overly broad provision of the law.
Clearly, the official secrecy surrounding the future of Jefferson Parish’s two public hospitals hasn’t advanced the public interest. The hospital boards deadlocked in trying to select a management firm, and the decision now rests in the hands of the Parish Council. In the absence of transparency, residents have been left to speculate about the motives of various factions and powerful stakeholders in this issue — an exercise in Kremlinology that’s a natural consequence of keeping citizens in the dark.
McClintock’s report argues for other reforms, including a more competitive negotiation strategy with potential contractors to ensure the best deal for parish residents. That idea underscores a broader imperative — namely, that this process is supposed to serve the public, not the convenience of political insiders. That’s why the parish’s two hospital boards, in meeting behind closed doors, have done such a disservice to those who use these hospitals as a lifeline.