Merger in the Dark
San Francisco state Sen. John Burton has just completed an amazingly cynical bait-and-switch performance with the passage of his legislation on public access to the newly merged UCSF and Stanford medical centers. That merger, consummated Friday, shifts $400 million of taxpayer-owned UCSF assets into private control. Thanks to Burton's bill, how those assets are run will remain almost completely out of the public eye. Thanks to laziness by our daily press, Burton has been able to maintain the fiction that he's a champion of the public's right to know.
Last March, Burton started raising questions about the UCSF-Stanford merger on the grounds that it would remove a substantial public asset, the UCSF Medical Center, from public scrutiny. Burton reasoned that, because UCSF appointees would make up less than half the governing board of the new private entity, the entity could be exempt from California's public records and open meetings laws, even though half its assets were once part of a public university.
With the possibility of unwarranted secrecy as justification, Burton introduced SB 1350 in March. In its initial form, the bill said that the merged, private medical center would be subject to public access rules similar to the public records and open meetings laws that apply to all governmental entities. And, the bill said, everyone connected with its operation would be subject to conflict-of-interest and self-dealing constraints of the Political Reform Act of 1974, which is designed to prevent private individuals from profiting wrongfully from the public till.
Burton, that pit bull for openness in government, held hearings in which he grilled UC officials about the public's seeming lack of control over the new entity. Stanford officials let it be known they opposed SB 1350 strongly, and the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner duly reported that the merger could be derailed as a result.
By the time SB 1350 passed both the Assembly and the Senate earlier this month, however, it had undergone quite a transformation. (Wilson's signature is reportedly imminent.) As it's now written, the bill is a virtual anti-public records and anti-open meetings law. The bill lists sweeping exemptions to public access requirements, capped by a provision that grants UCSF-Stanford Health Care (USHC) virtually absolute power to determine what it chooses to make public. The bill also removes those who will run USHC from the jurisdiction of the Political Reform Act.
Both the Chron and the Ex described SB 1350 as Burton's victory on behalf of public access advocates -- a description that is exactly, completely false. The Chron's editorial page of Aug. 28 commended the legislation as a reasonable compromise between the public's right to know and the need to protect proprietary information in the private sector.
And a Chron news story quoted Burton self-approvingly declaring, "The public's right to know basically prevailed."
What a whopper.
Under this bill, USHC will be able to hold secret meetings on the following: labor negotiations, sales of property above a certain value, pending litigation, appointments to the board of directors, the terms of health care contracts, grants of any type, securities bought or sold by the medical center, audits, accreditation reports, quality-of-care reviews, complaints lodged by patients, and -- not to leave anything to chance -- any matters to do with national security.
For shielding records, the authority is even broader-reaching.
Protected from disclosure requirements are: all contracts and financial information whose disclosure the corporation determines would interfere with its mission; all records relating to health care contracts, audits, and quality assurance reviews; estimates and appraisals used to arrive at contracts (which the state public records act makes available after a certain period of time); records of the purchase and sale of investments; records of grants; and, in the final all-encompassing exclusion, any records whose release the corporation determines could interfere with the achievement of its goals -- which, no doubt, are strictly confidential.
Just in case any doors were left open, the bill is both retroactive and prospective: Records created or obtained at any date before the law's passage are covered, as are meetings that might occur before the bill takes effect.
San Francisco Frontlines, the 6-month-old monthly tabloid that calls itself "A Newspaper for a New Progressive Majority," makes no pretense of objectivity. The paper's managing editor and leading force, Carlos Petroni, not only endorsed a candidate (city treasurer candidate Lucrecia Bermœdez) he wrote about, but admits that he helps coordinate Bermudez's campaign.
But there's a line separating partisanship from plain loopiness, and September's cover story "expose" of Supervisor Susan Leal, Bermudez's leading opponent this November, veers into loopy-land.
The story, by contributor Sebastian Robles, has a faux-investigative veneer,
citing -- wrongly, in a couple of cases -- financial records Leal filed as part of her candidacy for treasurer. (The forms he cites show that Leal actually divested herself of two holdings Robles says are evidence of her business dealings with evil.)
But it is Robles' conspiracy-spinning that is most entertaining. This story is simply hysterical, in both senses of the word.
Here's the scoop from Frontlines-land: You may have thought Leal was a moderately pro-business Latina lesbian member of the S.F. Board of Supervisors. But, Frontlines insists, Leal is an AIDS profiteer with links to international right-wing thugs, including Israeli hawks who want to sabotage the Middle East peace talks and the extremely late dictator of Spain, Generalissimo Francisco Franco.