August 8, 2017 10:37:44 AM
A recently issued opinion from Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's office states the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors should have access to information "necessary in carrying out the duties" of a potential OCH Regional Medical Center transaction and neither the county nor hospital can spend public funds to influence the outcome of November's planned referendum.
The opinion, written by Special Assistant Attorney General Elizabeth S. Bolin July 28, comes after District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer sought guidance on a situation created when the OCH Board of Trustees and hospital Chief Executive Officer Richard Hilton said in May they would delay the release of confidential information to an online data room for potential hospital bidders until after November's countywide referendum decides whether a potential sale or lease of the public facility would move forward.
At that time, trustees and Hilton said they would be unable to meet a June deadline for most of the information requested, and supervisors amended their request for proposals by moving up the deadline for data to Aug. 15 and the deadline for bids to Sept. 15.
Supervisors also previously called into question, through comments at the board table, the potential influence of OCH's public relations efforts on Nov. 7's referendum.
On Monday, Trainer said the AG's opinion contained "no surprises" and supervisors, through hospital consultant Ted Woodrell and Butler Snow attorneys, would discuss the office's findings with OCH later this week in a conference call.
In a prepared statement released by Hilton, the hospital CEO said OCH was surprised by the timing of Trainer's AG inquiry, as the hospital was working to comply with "priority designations" of information requested by Woodrell and lead Butler Snow attorney Johnny Healy.
The opinion, Hilton wrote, reaffirms two important maxims: Supervisors are entitled to the information needed for a potential sale's due diligence and hospital trustees are "tasked with operations and governing the hospital."
Hilton's statement, however, did not say if the hospital would release all of the information still lacking in the data room.
"The opinion does not say that the hospital has to turn over any protected information under the public meeting law," Hilton wrote in the statement. "OCH administration is continuing the review of information that can be released and expects to release that information within a reasonable period of time while trying to maintain the daily operations of the hospital."
Hilton was unavailable for additional comments Monday afternoon after he released the statement.
"I think they have an understanding of the things they can and cannot do. Not releasing information until after a vote ... that brings about a little suspicion, but that's their prerogative," Trainer said. "We don't want (bidders) to make assumptions. We want offers based on factual things. (OCH) has something we want, but we don't have to go through a lot of rigmarole to get it."
Woodrell estimated the data room contains about 85 percent of the requested information. He cited increased cooperation between the two factions but noted attorneys and advisers still "don't have all of it."
The county has not yet received a bid for the hospital -- those aren't expected to come in until the RFP's deadline -- but interest in the publicly owned health care facility is growing, he said.
"(The opinion) says what we thought the law said already -- they have to release the information to allow us to do our job," he said.
As for the advertising component of the opinion, Trainer said the inquiry was included with his submission after hospital supporters rallied the community and helped pass 2009's general obligation bond for improvements.
A similar campaign, he said, could be attempted -- not with taxpayer funds, however -- to affect November's vote.
"(OCH's public relations) tends to be very involved. When you're utilizing (advertising and social media), it does have an impact on public opinion," Trainer said. "They're trying to make sure people understand the types of services they offer and their impact in the community. That, at least, is well within their purview to do.
"I'm just convinced that once we get to the point where there are some proposals in our hands and we can release some stuff as it relates to them, in my mind -- and a lot of people are emotional thinkers -- hopefully people will be rational about the choice before them," he added. "I can't challenge what OCH has done because they do as well as they can with what they have. I just want people to take in the considerations and possibilities beyond what we're doing now. That's where the rubber meets the road on this issue."
Additionally, Woodrell questioned "indications (OCH was) encouraging people to sign" the petition that forced a potential hospital transaction to the ballot box.
A link to the petition previously hosted on OCH's website was not immediately discovered Monday when the site was reviewed, and it was not known when the document was taken offline.
"It doesn't do any good to come up with this opinion after the referendum. It's a matter of making sure everyone complies with statute," Woodrell said.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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