By Deb Murphy
Wednesday evening’s meeting of the Northern Inyo Hospital board was, literally, standing room only.
The board opted to strictly adhere to the 50-person limit on the meeting room on Birch Street; the other approximately 50-55 people in attendance lined a long hallway through a 90-minute report from the district’s auditor, waiting for the public comment period. As people wound their way into the room to comment on issues raised by healthcare staff forming a union, someone in one of the 50 meeting room seats had to leave.
While this regular board meeting was less tense than the special meeting called Feb. 10, more community members stepped up questioning both the board and the administration.
Becky Taylor spoke first, accusing board members of abdicating to the chief administrative officer, Victoria Alexander-Lane. Taylor wants to see a community forum put together to address the issues of what she called “a toxic environment.” Those issues included unhappy employees, the number of terminations and those reversed by the board, the Human Resources Department as an employee advocate and the nurses’ concerns prior to forming a union.
Eric Richman, a Bishop school district board member and husband of an NIH nurse, challenged Board Chair M.C. Hubbard’s assertion that the Brown Act requires that once a meeting place is posted that location is set in stone. “You just have to leave somebody to point (to the changed board venue,” Richman said. “Why do you need security?” he asked. “Why did we have to stand through a 1-1/2 hour audit report. The board is in charge. The employees do not feel valued. This shouldn’t be a you against them situation,” he added. Security staff said they were there primarily for crowd control.
Dr. William Dillon spoke to the rumors circulating among the staff and the community, specifically that staff could not approach board members or speak on hospital issues. “I don’t know if it’s true,” he said, “but it doesn’t seem right. It’s (the rumors) like fire, it just consumes everything. The board has to be open, honest and direct and stay involved with terminations. We have to work together.”
Two of the speakers, hospital staff, asked that the board hold off on approving the hospital’s new grievance policy that removed the board from the process.
Chief of Staff, Dr. Thomas Boo began his report by saying “I can’t sit here like it’s business as usual. You know the medical staff is having a meeting regarding the hospital leadership.”
Hubbard had responded to earlier questions of staff speaking to board members. “I need to clear up that perception,” she said. “It’s not true.” To Boo, Hubbard said “this is not on the agenda. We can’t discuss anything but policies and appointments” two items on Boo’s staff report.
The new business and action item on the hospital’s complaint and grievance policy was tabled for lack of a second to Dr. John Ungersma’s motion. Both Ungersma and Hubbard explained that eliminating the board of directors as the last appeal for complaints or terminations was standard procedure at other hospitals. Board member Pete Watercott explained that it is difficult for the board to judge what really happened when an employee is terminated. “The few times we have overturned a dismissal,” he said, “it makes it very hard on management.”
Alexander-Lane explained that she simply followed policy in the employee disciplinary process. “We do value our staff,” she said. “This is being perpetuated by people with a hidden agenda. They’re fear mongering.”
As for the nurse’s progress toward a union, committee spokesman Christine Haney said the hospital had requested the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees validate only the RN union on the grounds that nurse practitioners and physician assistants, the other categories included in the organizing effort, have less in common with RNs.
To expedite the union effort, Haney said, the RNs will proceed with their union, then begin the process of forming a union for nurse practioners and physician assistants.