Local Politics

Wednesday, Nov 21 2012 02:00 AM

LOIS HENRY: Give thanks for a system that sometimes works

BY LOIS HENRY Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

You know what I'm thankful for on the eve of this uniquely American holiday?

Our unique system of government. And those who have to courage to put it through its paces.

Related Info

Lois Henry hosts Californian Radio every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Something to keep our eyes on

Given what happened at the Nov. 13 Supervisors meeting, I have to wonder if some supervisors still don't believe the rules apply to them.

At that meeting, attorney George Martin took the board to task on behalf of his agriculture clients, saying supervisors had violated the Brown Act on open meetings by entertaining a request from the oil industry the week before that hadn't been noticed on the agenda.

Oil reps requested during the public comments section of the Nov. 6 meeting that the county work with them, in some way, to look at possibly revamping oil well permitting rules. The request was very vague but some supervisors clearly knew what it was all about.

Oil and ag are having difficulties right now because of increased drilling on prime farmland in Shafter, Wasco and the extreme northwest of Bakersfield.

Martin felt oil's appearance during public comments at the Nov. 6 meeting was purposely scripted because public comments aren't agendized. Anyone can get up and say anything. So his clients had no idea it was coming.

Martin had harsh words for one supervisor in particular, Zack Scrivner.

"Mr. Scrivner we requested to be put on the agenda and we weren't for two weeks," he said. "I called you and you couldn't meet me for a week. I met with you in your office the day before the (Nov. 6) meeting and you didn't tell me what the oil industry was going to do and I found you that you knew about it.

"I don't consider you much of a person to rely on after that. And this is strike two for you."

Hmmmm. Wonder what strike one was?

I'm talking about checks and balances, friends. Especially the checks.

There aren't a lot of other countries in this world where an average citizen can access one branch of government to force another branch to follow the law.

But that's exactly what happened right here in old B-town when Dr. Donald Cornforth got fed up with the behind-closed-doors shenanigans he felt were going at the highest levels of county government and sued.

Civics teachers (are there any left?) should use this as a live, local and late-breaking example for students to see why this checks and balances stuff is so important.

Cornforth got shut out by the executive branch (county supervisors and administrators). So he sought help from the judicial branch (the courts).

The result was the judicial branch reached over and butt-swatted the executive branch.

It truly gives me chills!

Cornforth won, which means we all won because what he was after was something that should have been open to the public all along.

At issue was a contract covering $100 million a year of taxpayer dollars for a county employee health plan.

A local company, Managed Care Services (MCS), won that contract in 2009 to act as the county's "third party administrator." That means MCS pays the claims, does the authorizations and manages hospital visits.

Almost as soon as the ink was dry on the contract other local providers began complaining about possible conflicts of interest with MCS. That's because MCS' parent company, GEMCare, had partnered with Dignity Health, the company that owns or controls Mercy and Mercy Southwest hospitals as well as Memorial Hospital.

Competitors worried that MCS would shift patients to Dignity hospitals and GEMCare specialists. They also worried that the arrangement would favor Dignity/GEMCare financially by possibly allowing increased stays at Dignity hospitals versus competitor hospitals. (Reports on the situation which eventually were released did raise some questions about length of stays and a significant drop in Kern Medical Center utilization).

Cornforth, who at the time, owned Quest Imaging radiology lab and was a board member at San Joaquin Community Hospital, had a vested interest in whether MCS was playing fair under the contract. He contacted the county several times.

Finally, the county had its independent health care consultant, the Segal Group, investigate the claims. Segal produced one report in April 2012 and another in July 2012. A third is apparently still being worked up.

But those reports were kept under wraps -- illegally.

In fact, someone in the upper reaches of county government went so far as to order the Segal group to change the title of one report to try and hide it under the "labor negotiation" exemption.

I've said before we ought to be told who that person was. The public deserves to know exactly who it is they're paying to treat them like dupes.

Though much of this is history now, I truly hope the public -- and all elected politicians and government officials everywhere -- remember this case. It's important to know you will be held accountable for your actions.

So, congratulations to Dr. Cornforth.

And thank you for reminding us that one person actually can make a difference.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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