Walker County board members continue to skip meetings as Hutcheson-Erlanger settlement looms

Walker County board members continue to skip meetings as Hutcheson-Erlanger settlement looms

June 12th, 2016 by Tyler Jett in Local Regional News

Walker County officials are still on the hook for the $8.5 million owed for a loan Hutcheson received from Erlanger which the county backed, though the county recently tried to settle the lawsuit for $1.3 million.

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

FORT OGLETHORPE — With millions of dollars at stake, the board that once controlled Hutcheson Medical Center tried twice in six days to meet.

Both times, they failed.

Tom Weldon, the attorney for the Hospital Authority of Catoosa, Dade and Walker Counties, called meetings for June 4 and this past Thursday. Two of the eight board members showed up the first time, three (one via telephone) the second time. Both times, Weldon canceled the meetings for lack of a quorum.

The holdouts include all four members from Walker County: Bill Cooke, John Culpepper, Steve Ellis and Corky Jewell.

This comes as Weldon and officials from Erlanger Health System are trying to hammer out a settlement between the two hospitals. On April 27, a federal judge ruled Hutcheson owes Erlanger $36 million to repay a loan plus interest dating from 2011, when the two hospitals were entwined in a management agreement.

Since then, Hutcheson went bankrupt, shut its doors, was purchased by a company in Atlanta and re-opened as Cornerstone Medical Center. The shell that once was Hutcheson has no money to give Erlanger, so the Chattanooga hospital is demanding repayment from Catoosa and Walker County governments.

Catoosa County officials have been negotiating with Erlanger.

"I think we're pretty much to the end of the road on this," county attorney Clifton "Skip" Patty said Friday. "You should hear something about that" during Catoosa County's next commission meeting.

But the Walker County appointees say they worried they would violate public meeting rules if they showed up for the two board meetings because they didn't get the required three days' notice.

"I'm not going to violate the Georgia Public Meetings law," Culpepper said.

For the June 4 meeting, Weldon gave notice on June 2.

Culpepper added he wasn't sure if Thursday's meeting, which Weldon announced as an "emergency meeting," was legal, either. Culpepper wasn't sure if the Authority's bylaws have different notice requirements for emergencies.

In fact, the bylaws require only 24 hours' notice by phone for an "emergency meeting." But Weldon said he announced Thursday's meeting Monday and mailed the written notice three days in advance, as for any meeting.

"I don't think they're making a good claim," Weldon said.

Meanwhile, Erlanger Chief Administrative Officer Gregg Gentry said his side has other moves to make if Hutcheson doesn't agree to the proposed settlement already approved by the Erlanger Hospital Authority.

"If the Hutcheson Hospital Authority decides not to honor its legal obligations, due to conflicts within its membership, Erlanger will assess its options," Gentry said in a statement.

The specific terms of the proposed settlement have not been publicly released. But Walker County officials have urged the Hutcheson board members for months not to sign the deal.

On Monday, a judge dismissed Walker County's lawsuit claiming it didn't owe the money. County attorney Don Oliver told a LaFayette, Ga., radio station the judge's ruling is a setback, but he thinks Erlanger can't collect from the county unless Hutcheson's board "demands" Walker County make payments. He said the promise to make the payments was between the Hutcheson board and Walker County. The county did not sign a contract with Erlanger directly.

Oliver did not return requests for comment Friday.

In April, Oliver emailed the Hutcheson board, telling members not to sign an agreement and saying the county was negotiating its own deal with Erlanger. Last month, Walker County offered $1.3 million. Erlanger officials rejected the deal, saying they expect about $8.7 million.

Also in April, Walker County officials said Erlanger was threatening to sue Hutcheson board members if they didn't sign the settlement agreement. The officials urged the board members to resist Erlanger's offer.

But in case Erlanger does, in fact, sue the board, Walker County has hired an outside lawyer to represent its four appointees. Culpepper said the four met last week with Cartersville attorney Frank Jenkins to discuss their options.

Culpepper said he's not yet sure what he will do. He conceded that signing the settlement agreement with Erlanger would mean he personally was not at risk to be sued. That idea appeals to him.

"Put yourself in John Culpepper's shoes," he said. "Worked all his life. Had a few little assets. Now the big hospital in Chattanooga is threatening to take all that away from you."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or at tjett@timesfree press.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.


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