Editorial: What is broken at the Med Center?
There’s something about the B.I. Medical Center. Every few years, this vital island institution goes through an internal crisis.
Back in 2002, there was the money the Roosa Foundation donated to build a senior center that, it turned out, wasn’t needed. The board at first didn’t want to return the $340K, but after tense meetings with the donors, did the right thing.
In 2004, then-finance director Monty Stover warned of financial problems. A year later, then-physican Dr. Peter Baute resigned, citing a bad atmosphere and lack of communication with then-director Gerald Lange and the board. After highly charged meetings, Lange resigned, and Stover was promoted to fill both roles.
It’s precisely at such times that Stover’s ameliorative presence has seemed so important.
His self-effacing professionalism, strong work ethic and, above all, friendly face working the crowd at fundraising events has since signaled to all, we thought, that things were well.
But apparently they weren’t. Stover’s exit was announced at a quiet meeting that conveyed few regrets on the part of the board. The very doctor whose objections ushered Stover in to his expanded role was standing ready to replace him.
And what everyone is left wondering is: Why? Just what was so broken that it couldn’t be fixed by, say, hiring someone to help Stover fill his double role? The financial picture is not so grim as the board often implies, a consultant said last fall (see related story). Management issues are at least as much about the center’s small size and the board’s micromanaging as about Stover’s performance. So why jettison him entirely?
Clearly lots of good citizens — and potential donors — are annoyed. Just look at this week’s letters, which have forced the paper to go up an extra four pages to accommodate them. It’s exactly the kind of furor that Stover himself hates. But the letter writers are right — the board’s actions call its judgment into question. Stover deserves a retirement party (we trust he got a decent retirement package), and we all deserve an explanation.
The BIHS bylaws say the board shall follow open meeting law, and yes, the law says staff performance issues may be discussed in closed session. That’s as it should be. Still, there appears to be more going on than Stover’s job performance. Or is there? No one knows but the board, because much of its substantive business, including discussions about partnering with mainland non-profit Thundermist, have taken place in closed session. After an effort to follow open meeting law under then-chair Millie McGinnes, there appears to have been a sea change. One BIHS board member even told newspaper staff that she doesn’t like to be quoted in the paper, and so reserves her comments for closed session.
Enough. This atmosphere of paranoia serves no one, and this newspaper is not the board’s enemy; its staff, like everyone else, relies on the center and wants it to thrive. Full disclosure: two newspaper staffers quit the board this year because they didn’t like the direction it was taking. But the paper’s bottom line is simply that we think what’s needed is a big dose of transparency.
A leaked email from last year shows that at least one board member would like to see the center’s doctor exit next. (For a search committee head to email such a sentiment, in colorful language, to a prospective hire is unprofessional, at the least — and what an ugly picture it paints of the island! To then mistakenly forward that email to the doctor in question... Everyone’s worst nightmare, but it wouldn’t have been such a litigation-inviting embarrassment if the board member had shown better judgment to begin with.) When it comes to the doctor, once more board members seem to see broken things where a consultant did not. They must be sure of themselves to have fired a well-liked man with important institutional knowledge; will that certainty sweep more staff before it?
The board is currently composed of nine hard-working volunteers who have dedicated long hours, in some cases for years, to the Medical Center. They deserve our thanks. But it has made subcommittee and interim staff appointments rife with conflicts, creating a structure that lacks much-needed checks. We all know it’s difficult to avoid conflicts on tiny Block Island. That’s why it’s time for greater public oversight, for the board’s sake and ours. Because it’s hard not to wonder: The center’s staff may not be perfect, but is it the board itself that is broken?