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Silent Treatment: Broward Health Meeting Postponed by Commissioner Absences

Broward Health Commissioner Mike Fernandez failed to attend this morning's board meeting at Coral Springs Medical Center in what appears to be a thinly veiled effort to avoid voting on whether to fire the district's CEO and to address concerns about whether he violated state ethics laws by failing to disclose that his employer did business with the public hospital district.

That absence, along with those of commissioners Joseph Cobo and Rebecca Stoll, combined with the seat vacated this fall by former commissioner Maureen Jaeger, meant that the board lacked the four commissioners it needs for quorum.

Board Chair Rhonda Calhoun apologized to the roughly 75 members of hospital staff who attended the meeting, saying that the commissioners' absences were "almost disrespectful."

A considerable understatement; this morning's scene was a sitcom farce that would have been funny except that the stakes are so high for hospital staff and health-care consumers.

Fernandez was in a hotel room in Bellevue, Washington, near the corporate headquarters of SonoSite, the ultrasound manufacturer where he's a general manager. Although Fernandez had told district officials that he'd be available by phone, policy requires that a quorum of board members be physically present. You can't vote by phone.

But the three commissioners who attended tried to reach him anyway. Since the conference room's speakerphone didn't work, the district's executive assistant to the CEO, Maryanne Wing, called Fernandez using a cell phone.

The commissioners bade Wing to ask whether Fernandez could attend a meeting. He told Wing, apparently, that he "could" attend, but not necessarily that he "would" attend. This prompted Commissioner Robert Bernstein to tell Wing to ask for a "commitment" that Fernandez would attend the meeting.

"He's not going to answer your question," replied Wing. Fernandez, it seems, has a grudge based on questions that Bernstein has raised about Fernandez's ethical conduct. So in a moment you'd expect at a junior high lunch table, the same question had to be asked by Calhoun, who's not getting the silent treatment. But even Calhoun got a hedging answer from Fernandez: "He said he is 'available' to come," Wing told the other commissioners, and that was enough to reschedule the meeting for Friday morning.

After the call, Calhoun was the picture of frustration. After apologizing to the audience, she expressed her eagerness to have a board meeting, not just to perform the district business but to finally broach the questions of ethical misconduct and mismanagement that have appeared on this blog. "There have been a lot of hateful, ignorant comments being made about your loyalty and your competency," she said to the audience, referring to the Juice comments field, where rumors have been passed about high-profile district executives and physicians.

"I hoped that we could get back to the business of the district," Calhoun continued, saying that it seems that staff is "totally consumed" by the political intrigue that surrounds its leaders.

Three weeks ago, Commissioner Bernstein predicted that Cobo and Fernandez would have excuses to miss today's meeting. "I told you so," he said to me as we walked out of the conference room. I asked him if he had hope for Friday's meeting.

"No," he answered. "My opinion is that we won't have a quorum Friday either." Bernstein also opined that Fernandez "tanked" the meeting. "I don't believe that Commissioner Cobo is sick," he said. "I think that Commissioner Fernandez made sure he would be out of town for this meeting. And I think that they did it purposely to deny the board a quorum -- for the second month in a row."

The board's meeting for December was canceled due to the absences of the very same pack of commissioners. Each board meeting's cancellation brings thousands in additional legal costs, as the general counsel's office scramble to issue temporary privileges to doctors waiting for board approval of their contracts.

It was yet another Broward Health-related spectacle for Gov. Charlie Crist, who hasn't bothered to appoint new commissioners to replace the departed Jaeger and the truant Stoll. Fernandez knows Crist from their days together at a Florida State fraternity. Cobo was appointed to the board by Crist, despite his application having been rejected by former Gov. Jeb Bush, based on concerns about Cobo's ethical conflicts -- the same conflicts that have now bloomed into a pending criminal investigation.

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Thomas Francis

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