by Walker County News Today staff
At last week’s meeting of the Walker County Hospital District’s Board of Managers, there was lengthy debate concerning whether current Board Chairperson Anne Karr-Woodard has the authority to spend district funds without board approval. There was also discussion about whether the district is even operating under the correct rules, referred to as enabling legislation.
The Rules Debate
During discussion about what the board chair is or isn’t authorized to do, board member Dr. David Toronjo said the district wasn’t even using the most current set of rules; that they were using governing documents from the 1970’s rather than the newer version.
Earlier this year this publication asked the district for a copy of the bylaws. In response, an attorney representing the district sent us a copy of that 1971 Enabling Legislation passed by the 62nd Legislature that established the Walker County Hospital District and set out framework for how the district’s Board of Managers would operate.
A quick internet search reveals that the enabling legislation was, in fact, updated by the 82nd legislature in 2011 to become effective in 2013.
In effect, our district appears to be operating under 1971 rules instead of 2013 rules. One notable change is that the term “chairman” was removed; there is now a “presiding officer” for meetings.
Who’s Really Running The District?
The majority of Wednesdays’ discussion centered around whether current presiding officer Anne Karr-Woodard is authorized to take action on behalf the board without board consent or, in some instances, without board knowledge.
The issue surfaced when Toronjo asked that minutes from the previous meeting be revised. At the July 2018 meeting Toronjo introduced a letter from the Texas Attorney General responding to a request from the district to withhold certain documents from the public. The district had received two public information requests. Rather than releasing the information, it forwarded the request to attorneys who then requested that Attorney General allow them to not release the information.
Toronjo said that he had a “real problem” with the how it was handled since no board members other than Karr-Woodard had seen the letter or even knew about the public information requests. He said the district had no record of receiving the AG’s response, that Karr-Woodard was the only one that had received a copy.
He said the entire process of Karr-Woodard hiring legal counsel to respond to the information requests had cost the district a “very disturbing” amount of money. He said it had not been approved by the board, adding “for the amount of money that was spent in the attempt to not release public information, there should have been an explanation.”
He later asked whether “we want to use a large amount of public money to try to obstruct the public.”
Toronjo questioned Karr-Woodard as to why she believed she had any more authority than any other board member; he said there was no mention of “extra power” for the chairman to hire attorneys or handle public information requests in the enabling legislation.
Attorney Janice Davis, who represents the district, responded: “There’s no prohibition against Anne hiring us or dealing with those on her own.”
“Based on what?” asked Toronjo.
“The fact that there’s no prohibition in the enabling act,” responded Davis.
Toronjo then asked the individual board members whether they believed that Karr-Woodard had authority to act without board approval.
Longest-serving board member Jerry Larrison said he believed she did.
Member Dr. Curtis Montgomery said “As a board, we should be a little bit more included so we know what’s going on.”
Member Judy Emmett said Woodard would email her to ask her thoughts on an issue. “We kind of make a decision and then Anne is kind of our voice.”
Woodard defended her actions saying “I don’t get any calls from any of you asking about the business of the district ever” and “I have to do these things administrative or else we would never get anywhere at all.”
Davis summed up her thoughts with “You have to delegate some responsibility,” but she did not explain when, or to whom, those responsibilities have been or should be delegated.
What About the District Administrator?
With the updated rules clarifying that no member is now considered “Chair” of the district board, only a “presiding officer” at meetings, there remains the issue of who should be overseeing the day-to-day operations of the district.
Under both the 1971 and the 2011 enabling legislation, the district is allowed to hire an Administrator to carry out the day-to-day operations of the district. Much like a school superintendent or a city manager, the administrator works for and answers to the entire board. And, like a school board or city council, a lone district board member does not appear to have been granted any authority or power greater than the other members.
The district did hire former HMH administrator Ralph Beatty as a part-time administrator earlier this year. This publication requested a copy of the job description for district’s new administrator but has gotten no response.
What’s the problem?
If Ms. Davis is correct in her assertion that board members can individually act on behalf of the board, the district could wind up with five different board members making independent, even conflicting, decisions on behalf of the district.
With no bylaws, policies and procedures, or clear operating guidelines in place, the current board seems to be operating on an ad hoc basis. This became apparent during Wednesday’s meeting when it came to light that the district paid twice for the same expensive roof repairs on the hospital building. In another example, the Walker County EMS Director John Nabors asked the board to look in to why they have unpaid invoices dating back as far as 2016 for which the district had paid HMH, but HMH didn’t pay EMS.
The current board seems to have no clear rules, other than the very broad enabling legislation, under which it operates.
The district board holds regular meetings monthly and those meetings are open to the public. Their next meeting is a special session scheduled for Thursday, August 30th at 1:00 PM.