Update: Tulare Local Health Care District Board of Directors Meeting, 6:30 Tuesday, November 23, in the Evolutions Plaza Conference Room, 1425 E. Prosperity Ave., Tulare
Although a public dispute between directors of the Tulare Local Health Care District (TLHCD) over the possibility of renting out a portion of Evolutions Plaza to the Veterans Administration brought their last business meeting to a premature end, members of the board will review the VA’s new offer during a hastily called meeting to be held Tuesday, November 23.
No Special Meeting Agenda Yet
The extra meeting was announced Friday, November 19, by Board President Kevin Northcraft, and it marks an unexpected reversal on his part. At the board’s previous meeting–just two days earlier on November 17–Northcraft said he had “no interest” in hearing details of a new proposal from the VA, as the board already rejected a similar lease offer, and he refused to meet with the VA representatives.
Northcraft explained his change of heart regarding the VA is intended to honor the wishes of his fellow board members.
“I don’t like one person to determine for the whole board,” he said.
With a minimum quorum of three members at the most recent meeting, unanimous agreement among TLHCD board members was required to conduct business, and so in blocking a meeting with officials from the VA Northcraft apparently angered Board Secretary Xavier Avila. Avila responded with an apparent tit-for-tat.
Following a brief, somewhat heated exchange with Northcraft and TLHCD legal counsel Jason Howard–during which Avila and TLHCD Vice President Mike Jamaica both expressed a desire to hear details of the VA’s offer–Avila left the meeting, knocking furniture out of his way as he left, and announcing he would not attend an already scheduled special meeting, also set for November 23.
In refusing to attend the originally planned special meeting–during which three applicants for the vacant District 3 seat were to be interviewed–Avila made it impossible to appoint a new board member ahead of the looming December 1 deadline. Both the District 3 seat and the VA’s new lease offer will now be discussed at the special meeting.
The time of the meeting will be announced when the agenda is made public. Previous special meetings of the TLHCD board have taken place at noon and at 6:30 p.m. at Evolutions Plaza, 1425 E. Prosperity Avenue.
Conflicts of Interest a Possibility
While Northcraft and Avila have agreed to allow the November 23 meeting to take place with both the VA and District 3 issues up for discussion, an unusual pair of possible conflicts of interest could arise.
One of the candidates for the District 3 seat–Marmie Fidler–co-owns Barnes Memorials, a business that holds an exclusive contract to place headstones at the Tulare Public Cemetery District (TPCD). Avila also serves as chairman of the TPCD governing board, which oversees the Barnes Memorials contract. The contract was awarded nine months ago at the February 25 TPCD meeting in 4-1 vote. Avila voted to approve it.
While there is no indication Avilia intends to exert undue influence over Fidler, his control over the Barnes Memorial contract with the cemetery district he helps oversee creates the possibility Avila could sway Fidler’s votes on TLHCD issues, perhaps even unintentionally.
Northcraft said TLHCD legal counsel hasn’t addressed the possible conflict.
“The attorney so far has not commented,” he said.
Tulare County’s Office of the County Counsel, which provides legal services to the cemetery district, has yet to respond on short notice to a request for comment on the situation. If County Counsel responds, their comments will be included as an update to this article.
‘It Doesn’t Look Good’
Northcraft admits the optics of a possible financial conflict of interest are poor.
“It doesn’t look good,” he said. “The appearance is bad.”
That may be why recently appointed District 1 Director Phil Smith–who reportedly intended to resign his seat effective Friday, November 19, to assume the job of CEO of the TLHCD–put off his departure from that role for a week.
Avila’s possible conflict of interest in considering the appointment of Fidler to a seat on TLHCD’s governing board would be avoided if he recused himself from participating, though it would not remove the chance his oversight of the Barnes Memorials contract could influence decisions Fidler made on the hospital district’s board. But, such a recusal would leave the board without the three-person quorum needed to conduct business.
If Smith attends the November 23 meeting, a quorum can be maintained in the event one of the other board members absents himself from the discussion. Smith’s participation in board action following his acceptance of the CEO position, however, presents its own problems.
Hiring the Boss
When asked, Northcraft was uncertain about Smith’s plans to attend the November 23 meeting.
“I don’t know about Phil, but the three of us (he, Avila and Jamaica) will be at the meeting on Tuesday,” he said.
Yet he seemed to know why Smith postponed his resignation from the TLHCD board.
“In case we need a majority now for a special meeting,” Northcraft said.
The same expertise that won him the CEO position would also serve the board as it considers a possible long-term lease at Evolutions Plaza with the VA.
“There are items on the agenda he may want to participate in,” Northcraft said. “The VA, he has a background in development.”
Smith, in any case, may not be able to help maintain a quorum while the board interviews the candidates for the District 3 seat. Doing so would mean Smith was helping select one of the people responsible for overseeing his future employment with the TLHCD, and that may present a glaring financial conflict of interest too big to overlook.