The Tulare City Council remains open to requesting a state audit of the Tulare Local Health Care District (TLHCD) and plans to move forward with a reorganization of the city’s Planning Commission.
But it took them nearly two hours of heated discussion.
‘Why Are We Here?’
Confusion, accusations and infighting all have plagued the Council recently, and the bitterness continued at the body’s latest meeting on October 3. After appointing Wayne Ross as the final member of the Measure I Bond Oversight Committee, the Council turned its attention to the Planning Commission, three members of which will complete their terms at the end of this year.
Councilman David Macedo, who missed the Council’s last two meetings, was the first to question why a reorganization is needed and why it is needed now.
“So, can I ask why we are here?” Macedo asked. “What are the reasons for being here right now with this?”
Councilman Jose Sigala echoed the sentiment, expressing trepidation due to backlash following the Council’s reorganization of the Board of Public Utilities (BPU) earlier this year. The main goal of the changes appears to be reducing the number of commissioners from seven to five.
“However we get there, I would like to see only five members on the Planning Commission,” said Councilman Greg Nunley. “I don’t care who’s on there, or if we leave some of them on there.”
Equal Representation and Growth
Sigala supports the idea of a five-member Commission, but he again voiced concern that District 1, which he represents, lacks membership on city boards and commissions.
“My goal is to find someone who’s going to have a good understanding of some of the issues. We want to be able to grow on the west side,” he said. “I want to be able to grow restaurants and development, some nice housing and other things that continue to grow.”
While even representation is a laudable goal, others on the Council say there just aren’t enough citizens willing to volunteer. Nunley cited the response to recent calls for applicants.
“We just went through the application process for one member of the BPU, a member of the Planning Commission and then Measure I. We had six applicants to fill those seats, or seven,” he said. “There’s not a lot of people raising their hands out there.”
Beating the Bushes
Councilwoman Maritsa Castellanoz says a lack of citizen response to calls for volunteers limits what the Council can do. It cannot make appointments without applicants, she said.
“We didn’t get a great pool of candidates,” Castellanoz said. “It is important to have representation from every district, but sometimes we just don’t have that flexibility.”
Macedo, however, says council members may need to be more active in the hunt for volunteers.
“When you talk about not having people from your district, you can talk about that, but you can’t say that without saying, ‘Where did the applications come from?’” he said. “That could be changing, and maybe that’s our job to go and fill that applicant pool.”
When the Council reorganized the BPU, it did so by removing two of its long-term members. That led to the resignation of the entire BPU, with two of its members eventually returning. That reorganization, which came while the city was considering a $20 million contract to sell gas from its waste treatment facility, led to accusations the move was politically motivated.
Councilman Macedo expressed his concern the Council stay neutral in its dealings with the Planning Commission.
“I would caution council members against trying to direct members of the Planning Commission, because we are the appellate board,” he said. “We have to be very cautious of that.”
Should the Council decide to reduce the Planning Commission to just five members, Macedo would like to avoid removing the current commissioners. Three of the seven members currently serving on the Planning Commission have terms expiring on December 31, and he would like to allow them to complete their service.
Chuck Miguel, current vice-chair of the Planning Commission, did have one warning for the Council.
“My only concern with going from seven to five is creating quorums,” he said.
Occasionally, Miguel said, he has had to attend a Planning Commission meeting he would otherwise have missed in order to ensure a quorum. A five-member Commission would need three members present for a quorum. The seven-member Commission now requires four.
“All I ask is the Council do what’s in the best interest of the city, do no harm,” he said. “Our city’s been through a lot lately.”
No Hospital Audit Letter Yet
In the other long discussion of the night, the Council decided it needs to meet with the TLHCD Board of Directors before it will pen a letter to the state Joint Legislative Audit Committee requesting it investigate spending at TLHCD.
The District is currently seeking protection under Chapter 9 of the US Bankruptcy Code after Healthcare Conglomerate Associates (HCCA), the company that runs the District, disclosed that TLHCD is insolvent and threatened to cease operations at Tulare Regional Medical Center.
“I think the people of Tulare want to know what’s going on,” said Councilman Sigala, who brought his original request for a letter to the Council four months ago. “We’re raising our hand and saying, ‘There’s something wrong with our hospital. It’s going down the drain quickly. It might not even survive.’”
Sigala, who faced push-back from fellow council members who believe requesting an audit would interfere with TLHCD business, also wanted it known the city is not trying to take over District operations.
“This is not a motion or an item for the city of Tulare to run the hospital,” he said. “The intent of this item is for our city council to take a position and a stand as representatives of taxpayers and patients.”
A Moot Point
With the District seeking bankruptcy protection, Councilman Macedo argued a state audit is no longer needed. He also said investors holding the TLHCD bonds are likely doing their own audit.
“If they are under bankruptcy, they will have a forensic accountant in there, and what you’re asking us to do is a moot point,” Macedo said. “Quite honestly, I can’t believe the bond holders haven’t jumped in and done their own audit, because they’re the ones in the end who are really holding the bag.”
With HCCA threatening to close the doors at Tulare Regional, the city has a vested interest in setting the record straight, said Councilman Nunley, and asking for an audit could not make the situation worse.
“Having a hospital is vital to this community for economic development, for growth, for people to want to live here,” he said. “(An audit request) doesn’t hurt anything. It needs to go all the way back to when that bond was funded by the bond holders.”
Mayor Carlton Jones, however, still wants a hands-off approach to HCCA and TLHCD.
“I never like to, as a council, take a position that is giving a directive to a board that’s totally separate from the city,” he said.
That comment prompted Macedo to say he would support sending a letter to the Audit Committee if the TLHCD Board requests it. Sigala, who said he has been working closely with those on the TLHCD Board, says that body wants help. He also said he was glad his persistence has prompted the Council to at least have a discussion about TLHCD.
“I do feel better that it’s taken four months since I first brought this item four months ago for some of these council members to realize there is a problem,” he said. “I think for me that’s at least some victory, because four months ago there wasn’t even any thought about (TLHCD) with some of my colleagues.”
This brought an angry response from Macedo.
“You don’t get to make that statement, because we all knew there was a problem at the hospital,” he said. “You may not have had support for a letter, but you don’t get to make the statement that we all thought the hospital was well and good.”
Castellanoz then accused Sigala of using issues at TLHCD as a springboard for achieving higher elected offices.
“Jose Sigala is running for a higher office,” she said. “For me, it seems like you’re using this as a platform for your campaign.”
Joint Meeting Invitation
Macedo said he spent time recently with TLHCD Board member Mike Jamaica, but Jamaica didn’t discuss District business with him.
“He never once asked me for anything,” Macedo said. “I think maybe he didn’t feel comfortable.”
Macedo then proposed a joint meeting between the Council and the TLHCD Board to discuss what action the Council might take to help the District keep Tulare Regional open.
“We as a council should work with that board to ensure there’s a hospital,” he said.
The TLHCD Board has not discussed the invitation yet, and the City Council agenda for October 17 did not include a joint meeting. The TLHCD Board meets on the fourth Wednesday of each month at various locations. Agendas are posted on the Board’s website, https://sites.google.com/view/tlhcd/home.
The next meeting of the Tulare City Council is 7pm Tuesday, November 7, at the Tulare Public Library, 491 North M Street.