The Tulare Local Health Care District (TLHCD) is undergoing a leadership shake-up as one of its board members and its CEO depart.
A board member pivotal to the district’s transformation, Senovia Gutierrez, is resigning as her work duties take her outside of the district’s boundaries. Separately, the district’s CEO Sandra Ormonde has resigned, and the district board faced criticism over its perceived handling of the replacement process.
Director Gutierrez Moving On
In a letter dated September 30, TLHCD District 3 Director Senovia Gutierrez made formal her departure from the TLHCD board. The letter names the effective date of Gutierrez’s resignation as October 1. Gutierrez had previously signaled her intention to vacate her seat, as she intends to move out of her district.
“I am relocating out of the area and will not be able to devote the necessary time, attention and dedication to our Tulare Local Health Care District,” she wrote.
Gutierrez, a licensed clinical social worker, is moving to Southern California temporarily to assist immigrants and refugees crossing the border.
Her son, Alex Gutierrez, spoke at a September 24 special board meeting in support of his mother and her work on the board.
“With the recall campaign, I don’t have to tell the group here everything you went through, Mom, with the election, the attacks, mysterious fires, articles, intimidation…,” he said. “And it was all done, and you did it, for the community that elected you to do it. You never, ever, once forgot about the people, every day you work with.”
“Your voice was always heard, and you made a tremendous impact for our community, and for our family,” he added.
Board President Kevin Northcraft echoed Alex Gutierrez’ praise.
“Anybody in the community who was here would remember the turmoil, how Senovia stepped up, [and] the pivotal position we were in to get the majority of the board to save our hospital — it was absolutely critical,” Northcraft said.
Former CEO Allegedly Interfered with Election
Senovia Gutierrez was initially elected by voters in July 2017 through a recall election: 80% of voters chose to recall Dr. Parmod Kumar, her predecessor, from his position on the Tulare board; 74% chose Gutierrez as his replacement.
Gutierrez would later face significant headwinds in attempting to take her seat on the board, including a recount request by Kumar and a prolonged period in which her ideological opponents refused to “recognize” her as a board member which culminated in the Tulare County District Attorney’s office heading to court and attempting to force her recognition after she was elected.
In 2019, reporting in the New Yorker alleged former Tulare Local Healthcare District CEO Dr. Yorai “Benny” Benzeevi hired a private Israeli firm, Psy-Group, to run a disinformation campaign against Gutierrez — she, Northcraft, and Mike Jamaica all expressed that they would immediately end Benzeevi’s tenure at the district once they had a board majority, ending a lucrative income stream.
In her resignation letter, Gutierrez noted that she was especially pleased to have helped oust Benzeevi and his management company HCCA — Health Care Conglomerate Associates. Benzeevi is currently facing criminal charges stemming from his operation of the TLHCD.
“I am particularly honored to have served as the representative of District 3 and I am truly grateful for the extensive support I received during the recall process and during the following months, which culminated in the removal of HCCA from our hospital,” Gutierrez wrote. “Those were definitely very difficult and unforgettable moments for our community, but we worked together and became stronger than ever: ‘Tulare strong.’”
CEO Ormonde Leaving at Year’s End, Comment on Replacement
The formal announcement of Gutierrez’s resignation comes just one week after TLHCD’s CEO, Sandra Ormonde announced she intends to retire from the district’s top job.
A Tulare native, Ormonde took over operations at the TLHCD in May of 2019. At the time, TLHCD leaders were seeking an experienced individual to lead a full-time staff to reduce consultation costs. Ormonde returned to Tulare following a decades-long stint as a systems integration engineer at Edwards Air Force Base.
An agenda item for the September 24 meeting raised some eyebrows in the community among those who supported the current board members.
A closed session item, “Discussion and Action on public employee appointment of Chief Executive Officer,” attracted comment from community members that accused the board of acting secretively.
Patty Drilling Phelps, a Tulare dentist and member of Citizens for Hospital Accountability, spoke for herself and on behalf of two other Citizens group members, Deanne Martin-Soares and Dr. Lonnie Smith — both former board members.
She started by reading Martin-Soares’ statement.
“Not too long ago this Board was made up of members whose backroom deals and closed session votes destroyed this District. All of you are aware of that and have been dealing with the clean-up since that time,” Martin-Soares’ statement read. “Let’s not repeat the actions of the past, but instead insist upon being an open and transparent district. This is the only way to win back the people’s trust. Anything less is not acceptable from citizens that expect transparency.”
She continued with Smith’s statement.
“If you are appointing a successor to the outgoing CEO, it is imperative that you do it as open and transparent[ly] as possible. The success of that person depends on the backing of the constituents of the district,” Smith’s statement read.
Alleged Lack of Transparency Recalls Dark Past
Phelps ended her comments with her own prepared statement.
“This item and this meeting hastily put together for this purpose is more reminiscent of the Kumar board than it is of the post-Kumar board. Four prior hospital board members who were supportive of the Citizens’ group have expressed to me that there should always be an open recruitment process and search for a new CEO,” Drilling said. “As a public employee, the CEO’s salary is paid for by the taxpayers. Taxpayers have a right to know that the hospital board directors have spent the time and the contemplative thought process to adequately vet all prospective candidates for any public employee position, and especially its critical CEO.”
Xavier Avila, the board secretary, bristled at the remarks, stating that the board was nothing like those of the past, stating that there were “a lot of comparisons to Kumar and Benzeevi,” but that “we’re nothing like those two.”
“It’s not a very effective way to communicate with us,” he said. “It’s just not right.”
Senovia Gutierez agreed that the current board was “not like Kumar and Benzeevi,” but stated that the board can’t allow themselves to be seen in that light either.
“We can’t start acting like them,” she said, adding that the public wants to see the process of selecting a CEO and see the interviews of those the board picks.
“We have triggered those memories,” she added.
Avila stated after the meeting that while he understood the public wanted transparency, a certain level of privacy was required for those interviewing for the CEO position.
While he said the process would be as transparent as it could be, Avila stated he was in favor of interviewing candidates in closed session to ensure that any potential candidates would not be discouraged by potentially alerting their current employer that they are on the hunt for a new job.