Veto he did. The forces behind the merger won. They could now run the hospitals in utter privacy -- and, as it has turned out, into the ground.

Burton and Kopp had a ready-made excuse regarding the strange transformation of their bill from one mandating public disclosure of information to one assuring total secrecy: Gov. Wilson. If they didn't compromise with him, he would veto their openness bill.

And Migden proved them correct; her bill was vetoed.
These three San Francisco pols had attained that safest and most comfortable of all political roles: They were defeated champions. They had scored points for standing up to power, without actually having to risk pissing off powerful people by passing legislation those people didn't like.

Now, a couple of years later, Burton and Migden seem so content in this defeated-champion role that they don't want to give it up -- even though we have a new governor, Gray Davis, who supposedly is a Democrat, just like the defeated lawmakers.

I pointed out this change of administration to both Burton and Migden. Although I think they were already aware Davis had become governor, I asked whether they would be willing to rejoin the fight for openness at UCSF Stanford Health Care, now that one of their own was governor.

(The UC Board of Regents is the only body able to actually dissolve the merger, and they are being urged to do so.)

Migden said she'd consider pushing again to get legislation allowing public oversight of the entity now sometimes known as USHC.

Burton, on the other hand, was profane and petulant.
"I'm going to a meeting on the budget," he said, trying to avoid answering the question.

So I asked again: Would he push to open USHC's records and meetings to the public?

"I would first want to look at what the hell it is people want to see," he said.

Finally, he said, "If somebody tells me, 'We want something, and we can't get it,' I will look at it, and if I decide it should be in public, then I would look at it. But I'd have to have someone complain first, before I put another fucking potato on my plate."

All right, John. I'm complaining. I have read your bill, compared it with other open government legislation, and interviewed experts, and I have come to the conclusion that your bill does not allow anything at all into the public domain that is of any use to those who wonder whether public resources are being squandered by UCSF Stanford Health Care.

Who's to say -- and who's to see -- whether the people running USHC aren't self-dealing themselves into a froth? Who's to know whether those excesses have something to do with the budget mess?

The only financial documents you've allowed into the open are so tremendously general in nature that no one could tell if hospital directors had taken a retreat in Tahiti at a five-star resort, or steered lucrative contracts to companies they owned, or had USHC buy or lease property from them at above-market rates, or hired thousands of consultants with whom they had financial relationships at hourly rates far exceeding industry standards.

Even you, John, told me that UCSF Stanford Health Care went on a "hiring binge" after the merger, and that you thought the binge, rather than cuts in government reimbursement for health care, was causing the budget problems.

At first it surprised me that Burton and Migden hadn't reintroduced their bills on openness at USHC. Opportunities for grandstanding on this order rarely come along more than once in a political lifetime.

Hell, I might even leave journalism, just to script their press conference, which might go this way:

First, Migden and Burton excoriate Pete Wilson.
They point out that they tried their hardest in 1997 to institute oversight of the new UCSF-Stanford entity, and failed under insurmountable opposition.

Then they insist, with rising indignation, that they cannot stand by any longer and watch a prized public institution be drained of its lifeblood by an ill-advised partnership.

The two lawmakers urge UC regents to cancel the merger.
And then the legislators say, with cresting fury, that they will now do what they should have done two years ago.

Migden reintroduces her legislative oversight bill. Burton introduces a package mandating that the merged UCSF and Stanford hospitals be considered a governmental agency for the purposes of abiding by the Public Records Act, the Open Meetings Law, and the Political Reform Act.

To hell with all the mother-humping exemptions, Burton curses.
Eventually, both lawmakers call upon their fellow Democrat, Gray Davis, to heed their call for openness.

And in closing the two lawmakers could issue a threat: If these bills fail, or if the governor vetoes them, we will continue to reintroduce them again and again.

The political rationale for the bills is not going away anytime soon. Until the close of 2001, UCSF Stanford Health Care promises to be a losing proposition. Burton and Migden could earn all sorts of street-fighting points without really trying -- and, it seems, without any political liability.

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