Tulare’s hospital board is finally whole after the appointment of a new member on November 14 — and Evolutions could open this weekend, if the stars align.
The Tulare Local Healthcare District’s Board of Directors chose Stephen Harrell to replace the seat vacated by Richard Torrez upon his resignation on September 28, 2017.
Harrell will serve out the remainder of Torrez’ term, which expires in November 2018.
Harrell and Phil Smith were both interviewed by the board at the meeting. While the board praised Smith’s financial acumen and skill set, they ultimately chose Harrell in a unanimous vote.
Evolutions Could Reopen Soon
A plan to reopen Evolutions continues to progress, Tulare attorney Dennis Mederos told the public. A company represented by Mederos would lease Evolutions’ gym facilities and operate them while the board focuses on rebuilding the hospital.
“We’re trying to let the district devote all of its efforts and all of its time into getting its hospital open,” he said. “If we get the favorable ruling we’re looking for that will deliver possession to the district, I anticipate being able to ramp up this lease very shortly.”
“[Evolutions is] not our top priority. The hospital is our top priority,” Board Chairman Kevin Northcraft said.
Staff from the Tulare Industrial Site Development Foundation, the Tulare Local Development Company, and the Tulare Hospital Foundation will participate in the management of the company.
“These entities are doing this for the benefit of the community,” Mederos said.
There would also be an oversight committee to monitor the operations of the resuscitated Evolutions, selected by the members of the hospital district’s board, Mederos said.
“This operation will be totally transparent, though representatives,” he said.
The hospital district will head to federal bankruptcy court on Thursday morning to seek a ruling that would allow it to take control of the hospital and its properties — including Evolutions — immediately. If a judge rules in the hospital’s favor, it could revive the gym in short order.
“We’ve actually had an ambitious goal, which is to open this weekend,” Mederos said. “If we can get the insurance taken care of, and if we can get a favorable ruling from the court, I truly believe we’ll get Evolutions open very quickly.”
Harrell currently serves on the Tulare County Ambulance Compliance committee, and works as a personal trainer. He’s a member of Citizens for Hospital Accountability, the group which has previously supported Northcraft, Mike Jamaica, and Senovia Gutierrez.
His addition to the board means the whole body is now comprised of those who are either members of, or have been supported by, the group.
He stated that he has over thirty years of experience in law enforcement, including in the Tulare County Sheriff’s Office and the Tulare Police Department.
“I’ve always been a hands-on type manager — I’m involved in everything that goes on,” Harrell said. “Anything that my people do, I do also.”
He told the Voice that he felt that his experience would carry over to any position he serves in, including the board.
While Harrell said he would be able to interact with everyone and anyone, he did say that knowing the other board members would help.
He also told the board he shared their mindset.
“My philosophy and what I would think needs to be done is exactly what this board is doing,” he said. “This board is finally standing up and taking their hospital back again — and bringing some respect back to the hospital that has been deteriorating for quite some time.”
He also stated that his first priority — after ensuring that Tulare Regional Medical Center would be reopened — would be to restore the public’s confidence in the hospital. He wasn’t sure whether he would run in November of 2018, though.
Hospital board meetings have traditionally been held inside the conference room of Evolutions Gym.
That room was locked shut at the Tuesday meeting. Instead, chairs and a volunteer-provided speaker system were set up by the time attendees milled into the lobby of Evolutions.
Evolutions and all of the hospital district’s other properties are still managed by Healthcare Conglomerate Associates (HCCA) until November 27, or until a judge allows the hospital district to reject the company’s contract sooner.
It’s unclear whether the decision to lock the meeting room was made by HCCA, but Jamaica did say he had received some advance notice that the room would be locked.
The move came after a critical opinion piece ran in the Visalia Times-Delta, penned by HCCA CEO Benny Benzeevi, in which he called the board’s actions to declare bankruptcy reckless, and after he told the local daily that Board Chairman Kevin Northcraft was “whining and crying like a baby.”
While Smith wasn’t ultimately chosen, the board specifically praised his financial background and asked for any help he could provide as they navigate the healthcare district’s bankruptcy.
Smith is a former member of the Tulare Board of Public Utilities, and previously ran against Tulare Mayor Carlton Jones for election to the Tulare City Council. He has over 30 years of experience in the finance industry.
“I believe what I bring to this particular body is 20 years of commercial lending, 30 years of banking. My job now is to analyze financial statements and to project the outcome of projects,” Smith said. “This body, regardless of who gets the seat, is going to be working on a projected basis for years to come — and the financial information needs to be solid, and it has to be explainable to the public.”
Northcraft noted that while he personally favored Harrell, he noted Smith’s financial background and abilities.
“I think it’s a tough decision — in a way we can’t make the wrong decision, but there are really good reasons to support Phil as well as Steve,” he said.