MANATEE — The chief executive officer of Manatee County Rural Health Services Inc. says the agency’s directors have taken several steps to address conflicts of interest and other problems uncovered by a Bradenton Herald investigation.
But there was no way to confirm any actions, reportedly approved by the agency’s board during its regular board meeting Wednesday. The meeting was closed to the public and the media; agency officials would not even say when and where it took place.
In denying access to the board meeting, agency CEO Walter “Mickey” Presha Sr. said Rural Health is a private organization and “is legally obligated to keep the discussions of its board members confidential.”
Steps approved in the meeting, Presha said, include hiring advisers and creating oversight committees.
“The board, myself and other leaders within the organization are very excited about these changes and the opportunity to strengthen our processes so that MCRHS can continue to provide the highest standard of accessible, affordable and quality health care to all residents of Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties,” Presha wrote Thursday in an e-mail.
Rural Health, which is not affiliated with the county, has been rocked by revelations that it has routinely steered business to companies controlled by board members, top executives and their family members. Those insider deals have resulted in at least $3 million going to those businesses since 2004, by far the most of any rural health agency in Florida, the Bradenton Herald reported.
The newspaper also found Presha has long been the highest-paid rural health CEO in Florida, with a salary of $433,000 last year. A board compensation committee has long set his annual salary, which is partly based on a salary survey conducted by the agency’s chief financial officer — a Presha subordinate who is a full-time Illinois resident.
In response to the Herald’s findings, Presha said the board created three committees:
n An audit committee that “will be responsible for reviewing and approving the compensation of MCRHS’ officers and highly compensated employees, among other issues.” The board also approved hiring Pete Smith, a compensation consultant from McLean, Va., to “assess and confirm the appropriateness” of those employees’ compensation.
n A governance committee that will “re-evaluate the role of the board in MCRHS’ decision-making” and make recommendations if needed. It will include an independent member who is not now on Rural Health’s board, Presha said.
n A construction, building and facilities committee whose mission is to “examine MCRHS’ procurement and contract bidding processes,” especially for contracts awarded to employee- or board member-affiliated businesses.
Presha did not provide further details about the committees, including which board members will serve on them.
The agency also has hired a procurement director, Presha said. He declined to disclose her name, saying she has not yet left her current employer.
Kimberly V. Jackson, a Tampa public relations consultant, had recommended the changes. Presha contacted her after the Herald’s initial story on the agency was published Aug. 23.
Following that article, Presha said he would present Jackson’s recommendations to the board at its next meeting. But when the Herald inquired about attending the meeting, Presha said the agency believes it is not subject to Florida’s open-meetings law.
“As a private organization, MCRHS is legally obligated to keep the discussions of its board members confidential in order to foster an atmosphere of free and full deliberation and to protect patient data, trade secrets and strategic plans,” he said in an e-mail sent Tuesday.
During a telephone interview that day, Presha also declined to divulge the upcoming meeting’s time and location.
Media-law experts said it wasn’t immediately clear Thursday whether Rural Health is exempt from the open-meetings law. They cited a lack of court decisions and opinions from the state attorney general’s office for the ambiguity.
“It’s kind of a gray area,” said Christina Locke, interim assistant director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.
Duane Marsteller, transportation/growth and development reporter, can be reached at 745-7080, ext. 2630.