There were raised voices, arguments, accusations, lectures and in the end no action as the Tulare City Council debated asking the state to audit the Tulare Local Health Care District.
At issue during the latest meeting on September 19 was whether the Council should send a letter to state representatives asking for an audit of the District by the State Joint Audit Committee. Previously, the Council had decided not to send such a letter, but developments at the Hospital District prompted Councilman Jose Sigala to ask to revisit the issue.
“There’s been a recall election. There’s been a person being debated if she should be on the board or not,” he said. “There’ve been legal challenges, there’s money that’s been spent, there’s money that in my case has been mismanaged, and so there’s a lot of different things that have occurred since the last time.”
Mind Your Own Business
As last time, Sigala encountered strong resistance from his fellow council members, with the Councilman Greg Nunley and Mayor Carlton Jones arguing it was not the Council’s place to become involved in the District’s affairs.
“I think someone needs to step in and let all the taxpayers know what happened with all the money,” Nunley said. “I think that’s not part of City Council’s business.”
His concern appeared to be politically motivated bias on the part of auditors from the state.
“If they would come down and set both people in the corners and they would come down and audit the books and tell us all what happened, then I’d be for that,” Nunley said. “But, I don’t think writing a letter is proof that’s going to happen. If you can prove that’s going to happen, I’ll stand behind you on that.”
Jones said he didn’t want to raise hopes by asking for an audit.
“I also believe we give a false hope by telling people that the city of Tulare can write a letter with five signatures on it and it’s going to do something in Sacramento,” he said. “It’s not.”
Mayor Denies Bias
The Mayor then addressed his personal relationship with Dr. Parmod Kumar, who was recently ousted from the District’s Board in a landslide recall election. Jones is involved in an ongoing lawsuit against the District by its former medical staff, yet he said he now supports Senovia Gutierrez, the woman elected in Kumar’s place who was forced to wait three months after the election to take her seat.
“Everyone knows Dr. Kumar was a dear friend of mine, and I supported him. He lost the election that night,” Jones said. “I still support my friend, and I support Senovia Gutierrez as the new leader of the hospital, and that’s automatic.”
Jones said the state is too busy to concern itself with possibly misspent voter-approved bond funds intended for the construction of the still unfinished expansion at Tulare Regional Medical Center. He also said problems at the hospital have been ongoing for more than a decade, meaning there is no reason to act now. Hospital business, he said, was not something the City Council should address.
“We have our own responsibilities here, as a council,” Jones said. “If I wanted to run the hospital, I would have ran for the hospital board.”
Problems and Unmet Promises
Tulare, Jones said, has too many problems of its own to become involved in hospital business. He also attacked Sigala for turning their attention to the District when he had yet to fulfill promises he made during his campaign.
“We have tons of our own money, and own problems, and own department issues, and big issues that we can’t ignore to deal with these issues,” Jones said. “You talk about the promises we made early in the campaign. The alleys on the west side aren’t fixed. We don’t have a bank on the west side. Those are the promises you made when you ran, and now it’s ‘I’m sending letters to Sacramento’ on issues that have nothing to do with your Council responsibilities.”
Sigala, however, said an audit is necessary to protect taxpayers.
“We as elected officials have fiduciary responsibility not only to our own city, but the people we represent,” he said. “All of you pay for that as taxpayers of Tulare, so we do have a responsibility to speak out.”
He also pointed out the historic impact of similar letters to counter Jones’s assertion asking for an audit would be a mere gesture.
“If we took the attitude that letters would not make a difference, we wouldn’t have civil rights gains, we wouldn’t have immigration gains,” Sigala said. “We wouldn’t have a lot of things where people took the time to write letters and take positions. I think this is an opportunity for our city to step up, to be leaders, to say we care about Tulare residents.”
Show Me the Money
Seemingly in response to Jones’s mind-your-own-business attitude, Nunley expressed support for Sigala’s desire to ask for help from the state.
“I also agree with (Sigala) a little bit, and (we need to) take a stance as a council that somebody needs to come down in here and straighten things out,” Nunley said. “It’s getting really ugly and really, really bad. There’s a lot of money missing, in my opinion. There’s a hospital tower that’s not finished; $85 million in taxpayer money, somebody needs to tell us what happened to it.”
Tulare residents, he said, have a strong desire to know what happened to the bond funds they approved, as well as the right.
“I’m sure everyone in this room is curious what happened to that money,” Nunley said. “Who’s not curious what happened to $85 million? Raise your hand. I don’t see one hand out there.”
Jones denied the issue was Council business.
“I would tell them that if you came here to this dais to find out what happened to the $85 million of hospital’s money, you’re at the wrong meeting,” he said.
Taking a Stand
Nunley concurred that the issue should mainly be dealt with by the newly elected hospital directors, however he doubted penning such a request could be harmful.
“I agree with you 100 percent, but I’m willing to take a stand,” Nunley said. “The letter’s not going to hurt. I’m willing to back this letter to go to Sacramento.”
The Council then voted 3-1, with Sigala dissenting, to table their discussion until the full council was present. Councilman David Macedo was absent. He also missed the previous meeting. Sigala, as he did during the last meeting, objected to waiting.
“I just don’t see why we need that fifth person,” he said.
Jones, speaking in support of Councilwoman Maritsa Castellanoz who suggested waiting, said should they decide to send an audit request, the full weight of the Council would add to its credibility. He also said the delay would allow Gutierrez to finally take her seat. She was seated at a meeting of the District Board on September 27.
Yet, there was still desire to act.
“Something needs to happen,” Nunley said.
‘Worse Than You Can Possibly Think’
It was only after the Council reached its decision to wait it allowed the public to speak on the topic. Alberto Aguilar, a former member of the Hospital District’s Bond Oversight Committee (BOC), told the Council of his struggle to get information about how the bond money was spent during his two months on the BOC. He also told them about millions of dollars of missing equipment and other discrepancies.
“I can tell you for a fact that there is a lot of money that was misspent,” Aguilar said. “This is a lot worse than you can possibly think.”
He also described the frustration he met with when trying to get State Assemblyman Devon Mathis to request an audit. Mathis, he said, has financial ties to the company that runs Tulare Local Health Care District (TLHCD) and its CEO Dr. Yorai “Benny” Benzeevi, that prevent the Assemblyman from acting. Aguilar twice hand-delivered requests for an audit to Mathis’s office, including full documentation of his accusations, he said.
“When he (Mathis) did respond to me and we met face-to-face, his response to me was he couldn’t do it because he owed Dr. Benzeevi a favor,” Aguilar said. “If you take a look at the (Fair Political Practices Commission) Form 460, you will see how much money was contributed to Devon Mathis.”
According to Votesmart.org, Mathis received $7,700 from HCCA, as well as $9,000 from the Tulare County Medical Society, $8,400 from the Doctors Company, $5,200 from the California Society of Industrial Medicine and Surgery, $3,000 from the California Medical Society, $3,000 from the Magnolia Health Corporation and $2,000 from Health Net Incorporated.
Still Not Convinced
Despite Aguilar’s testimony, in which he cited his long publicly-available documentation of the perhaps illegal spending at TLHCD, Nunley still hesitated. He wished to avoid, he said, drawing the Council into the controversy.
“I have no reason to doubt you, but I have no proof to believe you. I hope that makes sense, and I don’t mean to insult you,” Nunley said. “I think everyone in this room would like to see that, but what I don’t want to see is the hospital business, the divisiveness, come into this room from the hospital overflow, pull us into the problem.”
The Council, Aguilar countered, had already put itself in the middle of the debate.
“Well, it seems to me, if I recall correctly,” he said, “all five members of the City Council, excluding yourself and Jose, went ahead and wrote a letter for the hospital, did you not?”
Nunley angrily denied it.
“OK, you’re wrong,” he said. “That is irrelevant.”
Jones, who along with Castellanoz, Councilman David Macedo and former council members Craig Vejvoda and Shea Gowin signed a letter to the California Medical Association (CMA) supporting the removal of the Medical Executive Committee at Tulare Regional, said the two letters dealt with different issues. The current letter, Jones said, addresses the BOC’s failure to do its job, and he placed part of that blame on Aguilar, who was on the BOC for just two months.
“You were part of the Bond Oversight Committee, so you’re pretty much just as much to blame as what happened to $85 million as the hospital,” the Mayor said. “You were in charge of watching $85 and what happened to it.”
He also denied signing the letter on behalf of TLHCD to the CMA.
“What you don’t know and what you shouldn’t accuse me of is writing a letter for the hospital, ‘cause I’ve never done that,” Jones said.
Nunley then began asking Aguilar pointed questions about construction operations, saying Aguilar lacked basic knowledge. He chastised the BOC for failing to do work it was never given the opportunity to do by HCCA and the TLHCD Board. The meeting then broke down entirely into an open argument, with all sides talking over each other.
Eventually, the city attorney intervened, reminding the Council it had strayed from the topic for discussion listed on the meeting’s agenda. Public comment then continued, with former TLHCD Board candidate Jesse Salcido warning the Council away from the topic. He compared the up to $55 million in misspent funds to a minor error on a bank statement.
“Don’t write the letter,” he said. “Wash your hands of it.”
Dreamers Get Letter of Support
Despite putting off asking for an audit until the entire Council was present, those present at the September 19 meeting did not hesitate to pen Council support for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Act (DACA) in a letter that will be sent to local state and federal representatives. DACA, or the so-called Dreamers Act, allows children of undocumented workers residing in the US to avoid deportation. The program is being ended by the Trump administration.
“I’m going to be honest: I don’t think it’s going to make that big of a difference. But, it will show me and our immigrant community that you guys care,” Jessica Macias Malcado, a beneficiary of DACA, told the Council. “It’s going to show everyone who’s not here tonight that you do (care), as well. It’s not just about whether it will make a difference; it’s about making a difference at home, because that’s the most important thing.”
The council members present voted 4-0 to sign the DACA support letter.
“This issue is definitely Tulare business,” Mayor Jones said.
Measure I Oversight In Place
The contention over the TLHCD audit letter was not the first heated debate of the evening. The Council started the night with a series of overdue appointments to the Bond Oversight Committee for Measure I, a half-percent sales tax to improve city services passed more than a decade ago, as well as to the Planning Commission and the Board of Public Utilities (BPU). The Measure I BOC has never been seated.
Dispute began when Jones appointed Chris Soria to the BPU to replace Erica Cubas, Sigala’s selected appointment to the BPU, who had resigned. Sigala claimed he and Jones had agreed to let each council members select a member from their own district to ensure diversity, and that Jones was violating it.
“I believe at this point the Board of Public Utilities is diverse,” Sigala said. “If we appoint someone who’s not from Council District 1, I think we go backwards.”
The City Charter gives the mayor the job of choosing candidates for appointment.
“I hear what you’re saying. (This is) probably a conversation we should have had a little earlier. We’re not going to change the Charter right now,” Jones said. “I hope that you find some consolation in knowing that the person that I am recommending is not only from that district, but you would probably have to be there for 40 years to match his time in that district, so I think we’re going to be just fine when it comes to representation.”
The comment seemed to anger Sigala.
“Don’t tell me there wasn’t a deal,” he said. “There was a deal when we did an initial appointment. … You came out in the newspaper. I campaigned on it; you campaigned on it. We got beat up by the newspapers for changing the BPU.”
Soria was added to the BPU by a 3-1 vote, with Sigala dissending. The Council also appointed Joshua Cox, 24, to the Planning Commission, as well as Maria Grijalva and Nic Ferreira to the Measure I BOC. A fifth member of the Measure I BOC was to be appointed by the Council at its meeting October 3. At that meeting, the Council was also to begin the process of reorganizing the Planning Commission.
The next meeting of the Tulare City Council is 7pm Tuesday, October 17 at the Tulare Public Library and Council Chambers, 491 N. M Street.