May 16, 2017 10:31:11 AM
A referendum on the future of OCH Regional Medical Center is all but scheduled after the Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk's office verified more than 1,500 signatories of a petition calling for an election on the matter came from qualified county voters.
Supervisors took the petition under advisement Monday and took no further action after Deputy Election Commissioner Cheryl Elmore confirmed more than 1,600 qualified residents had signed the petition, which eclipses the 1,500 threshold to force an election by state statute.
A portion of the petition still required vetting when Elmore spoke to The Dispatch about 2 p.m., and petition organizer Frank Davis said he was hopeful the entire process would yield at least 1,700 total signatures from confirmed residents.
Supervisors have long expected a referendum to decide whether the county should continue exploring a sale or lease of its publicly owned health care facility and previously suggested it could be held as late as November, when voters will decide who will formally assume former Chancery Clerk Monica Banks' position.
The timing of the election is also an issue with the county's ongoing request for proposals process for OCH bids, as trustees wrote a letter to District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer last week saying the hospital is not expected to be able to provide three years' worth of due diligence information by June 12 -- the date set in the RFP for questions from potential bidders -- and would not provide sensitive information about its finances before a referendum to decide the entire issue is held.
Supervisors, along with hospital consultant Ted Woodrell and Butler Snow attorneys, sparred over the issue Monday with OCH's chief legal counsel, Patricia Faver, who said it would make no sense to offer up sensitive information to competitors when a majority of voters could kill any deal after the fact.
While Faver said OCH trustees are fulfilling their fiduciary duty to the hospital, not refusing to comply with the county's RFP process, Butler Snow attorney John Healy said the hospital board does not have the legal authority to withhold any of the requested information pending the results of a countywide referendum.
"From a legal standpoint, I don't know where they find that authority," Healy said. "It's very clear under the statute ... that the county owns the hospital, that the board of trustees only acts on behalf of the county and, therefore, all assets, including data and records, are part of those assets owned by this county, which acts through the board of supervisors, not the board of trustees."
Both Faver and Woodrell confirmed the hospital is expected to provide some publicly available data for potential bidders this week, but the two sides and Butler Snow representatives agreed a meeting should be held as soon as possible to hash out exactly what data OCH officials believe should not be disclosed at this point.
"The bottom line is what we're after is a timely population of the (online) data room so that any respondents have adequate information to make an informed response. The quicker we can get that information in, the better," Woodrell said.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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