Tulare’s mayor has picked another fight–this time with the board of the Tulare Local Health Care District (TLCHD)–and his target isn’t taking it lying down.
At some point in early February, Mayor Carlton Jones took to the internet to attack the TLCHD Board of Directors, accusing them of failing to reopen Tulare Regional Medical Center (TRMC) by a deadline Jones says TLCHD Board Member Stephen Harrell gave during a Tulare City Council meeting in December.
Two recordings of that meeting confirm Harrell did not give a date for TRMC to reopen.
“There was no comment by me,” Harrell said. “It was not a matter of the record.”
In his online comments, Jones also asked if Harrell had been told to lie to the Tulare City Council by Assemblyman Devon Mathis.
Jones’ remarks were later published by the Visalia Times-Delta and Tulare Advance-Register as Jones’ response to accusations the TLHCD Board held a meeting in January without proper public notice. Hospital officials deny any misstep occurred.
Over the Line
Harrell, a former Tulare police officer, says Jones crossed a line when he attacked him personally and questioned his integrity. He denies having given any date for TRMC’s reopening.
“Being accused of being a liar does not sit well with me,” Harrell said when he confronted Jones at a February 20 meeting of the City Council.
Harrell originally intended to ignore the remarks but protecting his reputation forced him to respond in public.
“I was at the gym and people started coming up to me and asked was I going to stand for that,” he said. “The more I looked at, I thought no, I’m not going to let this go. There was nothing in the minutes. There was nothing in the audio.”
Jones Asked for Update
After addressing the council on another matter, Harrell took a seat at the back of the auditorium, where he was sitting when Jones asked him to comment on the current state of TRMC.
“I didn’t even realize he was talking to me until the person next to me said, ‘Hey, I think he’s talking to you,’” Harrell said.
Harrell responded, but was interrupted by Jones.
“I was cut off by the mayor, who asked, ‘Is there a projected date at all?’ My response was no,” Harrell said. “Further on, when I was discussing it further I said, ‘We are that hoping that [reopening TRMC] tentatively maybe in January is what we’re shooting for,’ as far as opening the hospital.”
Harrell says Jones demanded a guess, then distorted the answer he was given.
“This was solicited by the mayor,” Harrell said. “I’ve been very cautious since I’ve been on the Board. I never give a definite date.”
Harrell says he attended the December council meeting to address the “police situation,” referring to the suspension of three Tulare Police Department officers, including Chief Wes Hensley.
Previously, Jones had been accused of making inappropriate, perhaps illegal remarks about the officers and the investigation into the behavior that led to the suspensions, including remarks made during a local radio show.
Harrell, meanwhile, has been a very vocal supporter of Hensley. He also believes the suspensions are harming the TPD’s effectiveness. Hensley is a former member of the department.
“I was involved in Wes’s hiring. You couldn’t ask for a more straight up guy than Wes Hensley,” he said. “My big thing is what this is doing to the department.”
Jones Hangs Up
Jones, who has frequently been outspoken, has taken another tack with the press this time. When reached by telephone for comment for this article by the Valley Voice, Jones hung up.
He has also refused to speak to other reporters from the Valley Voice. He had previously agreed to make himself available at any time, and has repeatedly promised transparency at City Hall.
Chance to Make Amends
With a pair of recordings proving he never gave Jones a date for the reopening of TRMC, making it impossible for him to have lied about it to the City Council, Harrell would like an apology from Jones.
“If I misspeak, I will be the first one to stand here and apologize and offer my hand,” he told the council at the February 20 meeting. “I’ve been accused of lying. Am I going to be shown that same respect by the mayor?”
Harrell says his previous relationship with Jones was amicable, and he’s puzzled what motivated the mayor to make his remarks.
“If I see him at the gym, I shake his hand and say hi,” Harrell said. “I don’t know why he said the things he said.”
Jones and TRMC
Jones has a long history when it comes to the controversy surrounding TLHCD and TRMC.
When the previous board replaced the hospital’s medical executive committee in a possibly illegal action, Jones added his signature to a letter defending the behavior. Jones has been accused of taking political donations from members of TRMC’s previous management team, and he refused to support a letter from the City Council calling for an audit of TLHCD.
The mayor previously stated repeatedly that members of the City Council should not interfere in the business of other local boards, citing that reasoning for not requesting a state audit of TRMC.
Harrell doesn’t believe Jones takes personal accountability now for his incorrect and inappropriate remarks, or issue an apology.
“I don’t believe he will,” he said.
Harrell, however, is sticking to his guns, remaining optimistic and elusive about when TRMC will reopen its doors to patients.
“If you ask me today when we’re going to open, I’d say next month,” he said. “If you asked me in December, I’d say January.”