D.C. Open Meetings Watchdog Raps United Medical Center Board for Unlawful Closed Session to Take Sensitive Vote Limiting Services

UPDATED 3-12-18: The UMC board, in response to the Office of Open Government direction reported below, and open records requetss from the Open Government Coalition and others, the United Medical Center board has released the audio of the closed part of a December board meeting. That closing was unlawful, according to the OOG review of the incident in response to a Coalition complaint. Peter Jamison's latest reporting in the Post today is here. The recording is here.  The board had earlier sounded a defiant note and threatened to take legal action to stop the order to publlish.

 

The board of United Medical Center, the District’s last remaining public hospital, violated the law in voting in secret session December 13, 2017, to close the hospital obstetrics unit that serves a low-income area in southeast Washington, D.C.

An opinion (available at link below), released late today (26) by the D.C. Office of Open Government, in response to a complaint by the Open Government Coalition, finds violations of the law and requires the hospital board to publish the audio recording of the discussion and vote (closed sessions must be taped) since the actual discussion shows there was no reason it should not have been public.

The Office, authorized by the Council to enforce the D.C. Open Meetings Act, reviewed the meeting notice and tapes of the open and closed meeting segments to determine what was discussed. The law requires public notice in advance of the closed session and justification, as well as public explanation again and a roll call vote to close at the meeting. 

The law allows closed sessions on only a few subjects and the Office said closing the obstetrics unit didn’t qualify. The board offered multiple (and inconsistent) versions of justifications for closing but the Office found, compared to what actually was discussed, "there was no allowable reason to discuss and take formal action" behind closed doors and so the board violated the law "for improperly meeting in a closed/executive session." In addition, though the session was wrongly closed, the board failed to state on the record after returning to public session what had been done in the closed session.

The troubled hospital has drawn scrutiny for many reasons including problems of patient care, an expensive contract with an  outside consulting firm, Veritas, to run the facility (recently canceled by the D.C. Council), and longstanding financing problems as revenues don’t cover expenses.

A week ago, the hospital board chair did not appear for a D.C. Council hearing on the hospital problems.  The chairman of the Committee on Health, Vincent Gray, said he will try rescheduling before seeking a subpoena to require her attendance.

According to Peter Jamison's Post reporting, the hospital board voted today (26) to hire anther consulting group to deal with what D.C. officials called the "functional bankruptcy" of the hospital.

The opinion letter is available through the link below and will be posted on the Office of Open Government website under Open Meetings Act – Resolved Complaints. Earlier Coalition posting on the topic is here.