PMC board considers closed meetings

Pioneer Medical Center board meetings are open to the public — for now. 

On June 29, CEO Erik Wood informed Big Timber Pioneer staff the hospital would likely hold closed meetings moving forward, in light of their transition out of county ownership.  

On July 1, the hospital officially shifted to a 501(c)3 not-for-profit facility, and in doing so, became a formal affiliate of Billings Clinic. Despite PMC’s new designation, the hospital will continue to receive approximately $435,000 annually in county mill levy funding through 2019.

However, PMC had a change of heart once made aware by the Pioneer that their new policy could potentially violate state open meetings laws. In a July 12 email, Wood wrote that PMC decided to keep their meetings open “out of an abundance of caution.” 

The hospital consulted with their “attorneys and others across the state,” and were advised that open meetings laws only applied “to a private nonprofit organization’s activities using public funds, and that its other activities that are not directly supported by public funds are not subject to the open meeting law,” Wood wrote. 

According to Montana Code Annotated 2-3-203, meetings of organizations supported “in whole or in part by public funds, or expending public funds, including the supreme court, must be open to the public.”

The CEO further explained that, contrary to the guidance of PMC’s counsel, “we recognize that there is a question of law on this matter.” 

Wood wrote that during the next board meeting, to be held July 25, the board will consider whether or not to have Sweet Grass County Attorney Pat Dringman present the matter to Montana Attorney General Tim Fox for a formal opinion, “so we can all be sure that the law is appropriately being met.” 

The Pioneer attempted to contact the Montana Attorney General’s Office regarding this matter, however, John Barnes, director of communications, replied the AG’s office does not provide legal advice or interpretations to citizens or to the press.

“I think you’ve made the right choice by speaking with private legal counsel,” he wrote. “You might also raise the issue with the Sweet Grass County Attorney and county commissioners.”

Barnes also referred the Pioneer to the open meetings law as can be found in MCA 2-3-101 through 2-3-301.

— The original plan —

PMC’s initial plan to keep the public involved consisted of four mechanisms for public comment, which Wood presented in a June 29 email. 

Those who wished to comment during board meetings would have been asked to submit a form 10 business days in advance. The public would have also been permitted to attend the annual budget meeting with the Sweet Grass County Commissioners, in addition to 30 minutes during the June meeting, when the annual budget is approved, and 30 minutes at the December meeting, which is at the halfway point in the fiscal year.

“It has never been our intention that the public would not be allowed to attend and participate in any meeting of the board that involves the use of the public mill levy funds provided by the county,” Wood wrote in a July 12 email. He noted that previous meetings regarding the facility’s transfer out of county ownership were open to the public, and future meetings will be open “whenever there are matters that address the public funds provided by the county.”

In a July 5 email, Montana Freedom of Information Hotline consulting attorney Mike Meloy said the board meeting policy PMC first considered could have put the hospital in violation of state open meetings law.

“If the medical facility receives public funds, its governing board must comply with the open meetings law. Since the same definition applies to the right to participate, the governing board must notice its meetings, provide an agenda and extend public comment time to the public on all decisions of significant public interest before they are made,” Meloy wrote. “Obviously, the schedule for public comment outlined by the CEO is not reflective of that requirement. Any member of the public could bring a court action to set aside any decision made in violation of these laws, so the board is at significant risk if they violate the law.”

— The board’s discussion —

Board members discussed closing future assemblies during a June 17 meeting of the new hospital board. The new board includes all members of the former board — Susie Mosness, Clint Rech, Paula Curtin, Mark Ketcham and Perry Anderson — plus PMC physician Ace Walker and two representatives from Billings Clinic. The Pioneer attempted to reach all board members and made contact with three who were in attendance at the June 17 meeting. None of the members who chose to comment could recall whether the board had actually voted to close the meetings or not. 

Clint Rech, a board member of two years, said this wasn’t the first time the board had broached the topic of closing their meetings. 

“I can tell you that since I’ve been on that board, it’s been discussed,” he said.

Rech mentioned three reasons behind the board’s interest in closing their meetings. These included a desire to avoid long-winded commenters, to adhere to a perceived common practice and to conduct business without the presence of the press.

“The night of the meeting, they’re going to be closed because apparently in the past there’s been somebody that will come in there and take the floor and you can’t stop them,” Rech said, “and the next thing you know, it’s (been) an hour.” 

When questioned about the frequency of interruptive commenters Rech said, “I have never seen that.” 

County commissioner and board member Susie Mosness seconded Rech’s comments in a July 11 phone interview.

“That’s not been an issue,” she said.

Rech was initially “skeptical” of the move toward closed meetings under the not-for-profit designation, but ultimately yielded to the experience of other board members. 

“I’m not on a lot of boards. I don’t know what the typical protocol is,” he said. “I’m somewhat trying to rely on the experience of all the rest of the members in there. They all tell me that’s the way meetings are conducted.”

Mosness added that most of the other Billings Clinic affiliates held closed meetings. 

Stillwater Billings Clinic Administrative Assistant Valerie Clyde said July 13 the majority of their hospital board meetings were closed to the public. The Columbus hospital is fully owned and operated by Billings Clinic as a private business and supported by a not-for-profit foundation.

“They are not open to the public except for the once a year annual meeting and generally the board sets what month they want the annual meeting to be,” Clyde said. “And that’s the only time that the public is invited to hear what’s happening with the hospital.”

As of press time, Livingston Healthcare had not responded to requests for comment. 

When asked whether or not open meetings laws were a part of the June 17 discussion, Rech was uncertain. However, it should be noted that he arrived at 5 p.m. for the 4 p.m. meeting.

“It’s not like anybody sat down and said is this legal to do this?” Rech said. “To my recollection, that wasn’t done.”

— Transparency —

The third component behind the board’s discussion was the media — namely the Big Timber Pioneer. 

Rech said the board members wanted to talk freely about matters without having to worry about their comments appearing in the newspaper.

“And I’ll be honest with you, I think a lot of the reasoning for this kind of thing is people feel concerned that they can’t discuss what they need to discuss in a relaxed atmosphere for chance it’s going to end up in the paper,” Rech said. “It doesn’t make any difference to me — if it’s an open meeting, that’s fine. I do not see any reason not to conduct it in that fashion.” 

He said the mechanism for public comment was not set in stone and that the board was concerned about maintaining transparency. 

“The mechanics of it is still being discussed — it’s not like somebody’s laid down a sheet of paper and said this is the way it’s going to be conducted,” Rech said. “I think the minute it’s perceived as not being transparent, it’s a negative and that was my feeling.”

Mosness noted that the board discussed the impact of closing board meetings on the public. 

“It was brought up that they’re still taking taxpayer dollars, and I think they were going to try to do some newsletters to let everybody know what’s going on,” Mosness said. “So, it sounded like they were going to try to address that part of it.” 

— Commissioners weigh in —

When informed about PMC’s plan to close future board meetings, commissioners Bob Faw and Bill Wallace were surprised.

“I don’t see how they can legally do that because they’re taking public funds,” Faw said. “I don’t see how that’s going to happen.” 

Faw said he was against the hospital holding closed meetings.

“When you get right down to it, in order to get the 25 mills, they’re going to have to do a good job of running it,” Faw said. “And I would assume that the meetings would be for the public to look at. I would assume that the books would be for the public to look at, should they request them. I just feel that if this isn’t done properly, it will be very difficult to get the mills passed the next time.”

PMC receives approximately $435,000 in mill levy funding each year — $208,000 of which goes toward construction debt payments. The remaining funds are used for “the operation of the facilities and the maintenance, upkeep, replacement, repair and improvement to the buildings, equipment and infrastructure,” according to the operating lease agreement between PMC and Sweet Grass County.

Voters authorized the county to levy 25 mills for a five-year period ending June 30, 2019, the document states. 

— Behind closed doors —

The June 17 meeting of the new board was not noticed to the public. PMC previously noticed their meetings via the county commissioner’s schedule, which is available online and at the county annex. 

No record of notice for the June 17 meeting could be located on the archives of commissioner schedules. County Clerk Vera Pederson said PMC never made a request to add that meeting to the commissioner’s schedule.

Commissioner Mosness said the meeting never made it onto the schedule due to difficulties in narrowing down a date for the meeting. 

“I don’t even think it got on my agenda because it just kept going back and forth all the time trying to figure out when everybody was going to be able to be there, and then it ended up that we just barely had a quorum,” Mosness said. 

According to the Montana Freedom of Information Act Hotline (MFOIA) website, public bodies — or organizations supported in whole or in part by public funds — cannot meet without giving public notice. Even meetings that are closed to the public for legitimate reasons must be noticed, according to the site. 

Publicly funded organizations are furthermore forbidden from voting on any issues during a closed meeting, according to MFOIA. 

None of the board members contacted could recall for certain whether or not votes were taken on any issues. 

“I don’t remember that we voted on it, but I could be wrong on that,” Mosness said, regarding the board’s discussion on closed meetings.

On July 12, the Pioneer faxed a Freedom of Information Act request for the minutes of the June 17 meeting. Wood provided an agenda and board packet for the June 17 meeting and reported that minutes would be available “no later than July 21.”

By Mackenzie Reiss / Pioneer Staff Writer

Pioneer file photo

CUTLINE: Pioneer Medical Center is pictured in June of 2016.

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