District Defends Outsiders’ Attendance at Closed Session
By Walker County News Today Staff
CountyNewsToday.com and at least one private citizen have filed Public Information Requests after the Walker County Hospital District Board of Managers dodged questions while defending the presence of a Dallas securities firm at an apparently illegal executive session Jan. 27 to discuss the likely sale of taxpayer-owned assets.
We reported last week that the board adjourned its Wednesday public meeting to go into executive session to discuss an undisclosed real estate transaction. Representatives of Hilltop Securities (listed on the board’s agenda as First Southwest) were invited to remain in the session in what appears to be a clear violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act, as well as a WCHD employee whose presence was not, according to the limits of TOMA, required. In open session after the secret session, the board voted unanimously to hire Hilltop Securities as well as the Houston law firm of Bracewell & Guiliani to assist the board with this real estate transaction. Other discussion at the meeting suggested that this transaction was the sale of WCHD assets.
On Thursday following the Wednesday session, CountyNewsToday.com emailed Board Chairman Bob Hardy with questions about why Hilltop was permitted to attend the session and if he’d consulted with any legal authority about whether Hilltop’s presence at the session was in compliance with TOMA. We also asked for copies of documents relating to board actions at the Jan. 27 meeting.
Hardy responded Sunday, Jan. 31, insisting that the board had consulted counsel about allowing “professional and legal advisors” in the board’s private sessions.
He also cited HIPAA as the reason why the board does not provide public information about matters under its consideration before voting on them.
“Walker County Hospital District is charged with health care responsibilities and therefore it must comply with HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations,” Hardy wrote. “Much of the information presented in the Board of Manager’s notebook contains HIPAA protected information. Upon written request for specific agenda item detail, the detail is provided to the requesting party after removing the HIPAA protected portion.”
Hardy did not say how a law protecting patient information related to the possible sale of taxpayer-owned assets or how that justified allowing a securities firm into an executive session to discuss a real estate transaction that would most assuredly involve the public funds.
On Feb. 1, this publication and at least on individual who attended the Jan. 27 meeting filed PIRs asking the WCHD to provide more information about the session, including the name of its legal counsel and the identity of a woman who joined the executive session on speaker phone as well as all documents relating to actions taken during the open meeting. These include approval of a lease on WCHD property and the hiring of Hilltop Securities and the Houston law firm. According to state law, the board has 10 business days to comply with the request or explain why the information requested is privileged.