Following an attorney general's opinion, the Erlanger Health System board says it plans to hold a "do-over" meeting to discuss and vote again on $1.7 million in management bonuses.
But local lawmakers said Friday that the gesture may not be enough to keep them from taking more drastic measures against the board -- including asking certain politically appointed members to resign.
Board Chairman Donnie Hutcherson wrote to state lawmakers on Friday that, following Attorney General Herbert Slatery III's opinion regarding the state's open meetings law, "we believe it would be in the best interest of the public we serve to have an open discussion at the February 26 board meeting about each of the four resolutions presented in December."
One resolution at the Dec. 4 meeting approved the bonuses for 99 top managers at the public hospital. The decision caused an uproar among the lawmakers, who were outraged that the board discussed the bonuses behind closed doors before the public vote.
Slatery's opinion, requested by lawmakers and delivered Wednesday, said state law does not permit public hospital boards to discuss issues like compensation in secret.
Lawmaker-appointed hospital trustee Dr. Phyllis Miller said Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, called her Thursday, the day after the AG opinion came out.
Miller said Gardenhire told her she had "committed an illegal act" and he wanted to give her the opportunity to step down before he and other members of the Hamilton County delegation formally asked her to do so.
Erlanger's 11-member board is made up of trustees primarily appointed by state legislators and Hamilton County officials. Miller, an OB-GYN who has served on the Erlanger board for five years, said Gardenhire's call felt "like retaliation."
Miller was not at the Dec. 4 meeting and did not vote on the bonuses, though she did attend informational meetings before the vote.
"It's just hard, because we did in good faith what we thought was the right thing to do," said Miller, whose term is set to expire this fall. "In my five years I have tried to do everything [that is] in the best interest of Erlanger."
Gardenhire declined to comment on his call to Miller. After Hutcherson's letter was sent Friday, Gardenhire issued a brief statement:
"After my alleged call to several trustees to tell them I intended to ask them to resign, that was like hitting a stubborn mule in the face to get their attention," he said. "And it look like it worked."
Gardenhire also told newly appointed trustee Henry Hoss that the delegation may ask trustees to step down, Hoss confirmed Friday.
Hoss -- whose very first board appearance was the controversial Dec. 4 meeting -- said he still hoped to make peace with lawmakers and felt that re-doing the meeting was crucial to rebuild trust with the public.
"I want a special-called meeting and invite the public in to give us their two cents' worth, and get it all out on the table," Hoss said. "Let the complaints come out, and give the board members an opportunity to justify whatever actions they take. We want to do right by this decision. We should have held all of that discussion in front of the public in the first place."
Hutcherson's letter also said hospital leadership plans to add a resolution to create a bonus system that will include hospital associates, "based on the same criteria as management."
Miller said she was also interested in a do-over vote, but added, "I'm not going to be intimidated or coerced."
The legislative appointee to the board, local attorney Gerald Webb, was not asked to resign, according to delegation members. He was the one trustee who voted against the bonuses.
Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, who originally requested the AG opinion, said he had qualms with the tone of Hutcherson's letter. In particular, Carter said he took issue with a sentence that stated, "Based on the discussion in the open meeting, our intent is to reaffirm the Board's earlier actions."
"Why should they know what they're going to do ahead of time?" Carter asked.
On Friday, Hutcherson said "reaffirm" was a poor choice of words, and the letter should have said the board's intent was to open the issue back up for re-evaluation and discussion before holding another vote.
Carter later said he didn't "think anybody intended to break the law."
"[Trustees] don't get paid, and they're beating their brains out trying to understand the ins and outs of hospitals," he said. "But the question for everybody needs to be, 'How do we put Erlanger first?' Not the board, and [not Erlanger CEO] Kevin Spiegel first. But the hospital."
Contact staff writer Kate Belz at kbelz@times freepress.com or 423-757-6673.
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