PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Manatee Rural Health continues reform efforts

Two new board members approved; closed-door meetings to stay

dmarsteller@bradenton.comOctober 22, 2010 

MANATEE — Manatee County Rural Health Services’ board accepted one member’s resignation, approved two new members and tweaked its conflict-of-interest policy Wednesday as part of the agency’s continuing reform efforts, a spokesman said Thursday.

Those moves were done out of the public eye, as the board also formally voted to continue meeting behind closed doors because of patient privacy concerns.

Bradenton pediatrician Dr. Carlos A. Mendez and Victor Young, an automotive dealer, joined the board and participated in Wednesday’s meeting, said Tom Nolan, the agency’s media liaison.

Mendez succeeds John L. Lewis, a longtime board member who submitted his resignation following a Bradenton Herald investigation into the agency’s practices.

The Herald found that board members, who are not paid, steered more than $3 million in business since 2004 to companies owned by themselves, agency officers and employees, or their relatives. The newspaper also reported that Rural Health paid Walter “Mickey” Presha Sr., its chief executive, a salary of more than $433,000 in 2009.

Both figures were the highest in Florida, according to a Herald review of tax filings by Rural Health and 27 other agencies that also provide health care to the poor and uninsured.

In response to the Herald’s findings, Rural Health has pledged to make changes. Among them is expanding its board from nine seats to 12 by adding three independent members.

Young, who did not return a telephone message Thursday, took the first seat. Nolan said the agency is actively recruiting people for the other two new seats — one requires a financial background, while the other must be filled by a migrant worker or someone representing the migrant community — but no timetable has been set for filling them.

“I think they’re moving pretty quickly,” Nolan said. “They’re not dragging their feet by any means.”

Mendez, 54, worked at Rural Health’s Samoset clinic for two years in the mid-1980s before opening a solo practice. He said he was recruited to join the board.

“I know what kind of an organization they are and I know they’re needed in this community,” he said. “It’s a great organization and I’d like to help out in any way I can.”

Among his first votes was to tweak the board’s conflict of interest policy.

Under the revised policy, any transaction in which there is a declared conflict of interest by a board member or agency employee must be approved by two-thirds of the board. Previously, only a simple majority vote was required for passage.

Nolan said the revised policy is more stringent than required by federal and state law and meets the Internal Revenue Service’s model policy for nonprofit organizations.

“Conflicts aren’t illegal, but they must be disclosed,” he said.

The revised policy was almost tested at Wednesday’s meeting, when the board authorized staff to negotiate a contract with Stellar Development to construct a new medical facility at 2318 Manatee Ave. W.

Stellar included Pinnacle Group of West Florida, a construction firm owned by Presha’s daughter, as a subcontractor when it submitted a $1.97 million bid for the project. But Pinnacle withdrew as a subcontractor before the board meeting because owner Trina Presha-Rosier agreed not to seek any more Rural Health projects, said Tanita Montgomery, the agency’s procurement director.

Montgomery’s newly created position is among several reform measures the agency has taken or has pledged to implement. Others include canceling separate contracts with two employees’ businesses for lawn maintenance and janitorial services; reviewing contracts with two board members’ companies; and hiring a consultant to review agency executives’ salaries.

But those measures will not include opening board meetings to the public. Presha and the board have refused to allow a Herald reporter to attend the board’s regular monthly meetings.

“They agreed with legal counsel not to do that (open meetings) because of privacy concerns,” Nolan said.

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