Court Rules against Hoboken Hospital
Press release from 2nd Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason:
Court rules Hospital Authority violated law
DEPRIVED CITIZENS OF RIGHT TO BE INVOLVED IN HOSPITAL PURCHASE
HOBOKEN – A New Jersey State Superior Court ruled last week the Hoboken Municipal Hospital Authority routinely violated the Open Public Meetings Act when it blocked Councilwoman Beth Mason’s request for public documents and information. The Court went on to conclude that the Hospital Authority’s actions had deprived taxpayers of the right to be involved in the hospital purchase.
In its opinion, the Hudson County Superior Court ruled in Mason’s favor in three of five charges brought by Mason stemming from a series of Authority meetings in the fall of 2006. While the hospital received $52 million in public financing, the Court found that it did not comply with Mason’s requests for public documents and information about the hospital’s financial operations.
In the opinion, Judge John O’Shaughnessy stated, “This court is clearly convinced, based on the credible evidence presented by plaintiff Mason…that the defendants’ (HMHA) actions violated both OPMA and OPRA – the Open Public Meetings Act” . Judge O’Shaughnessy praised Mason’s tenacity and admonished the Authority for its criticism of Mason for filing several OPRA lawsuits in the past two years, saying, “There is nothing sad about a citizen taking the time and making the effort to ensure that local governments comply with statutes such as OPRA and OPMA, which…are designed to bring transparency and openness to the functioning of local government.
Judge O’Shaughnessy also said the OPMA and OPRA violations were not mere technical violations of a new agency, as the Authority argued, “but rather as a pattern of conduct from approximately June 2006 and certainly into 2007,” ….and that despite Mason’s filing of her lawsuit, “the Authority continued with a pattern of conduct that still failed to live up to the explicit requirements of OPMA.”
Even when the Authority did provide information to Mason within the statutory time limit, Judge O’Shaughnessy said the information was usually incomplete. He also pointed out that the running of the Authority was slipshod; that the Authority was headquartered in an unmarked room at City Hall, and that the City Administrator did not have a contact phone number for the Authority. He also noted that the hospital’s executive director George Crimmins kept Authority records on his home computer and that there was apparently no designated person to receive open records requests.
Read the rest of the press release after the jump!!
(Court rules against Hospital, continued…)
Crucial October 25 meeting
Much of the trial centered on the critical October 25 HMHA caucus meeting at which the financial structuring of the Authority was discussed. The Authority’s public notice for that meeting, said O’Shaughnessy, violated OPMA, (Pg. 66) since it made no mention that the Authority board would be discussing the financial operation of the hospital and the $52 million taxpayer-backed funding for the authority.
The Authority attempted to argue that since no decisions were made at the October meeting there was no violation of OPMA. O’Shaughnessy disagreed, saying that Mason and other members of the public were “deprived of a basic right, that being the right to be present and to offer critical comment and oversight,” (Pg. 67).
The Judge said he found from the minutes of the October 25 meeting 10 important items were discussed and documents distributed to the Authority members (Pg. 71) that included the Authority’s budget; the repayment to the hospital owner, Bon Secours; pension withdrawal liabilities and indemnification for the seller.
O’Shaughnessy said “it is clear to this court that all of these topics significantly impacted upon the $52 million bond guarantee by the City of Hoboken, which was central to Mason’s OPRA request and, indeed OPMA – and also impacted upon her ability to offer critical comment,” (Pg 71).
Mason was extremely pleased with the decision, not for herself, “but for the taxpayers and residents of Hoboken who were kept in the dark about the city’s decision to put the taxpayers on the hook for a $52 million debt to finance the operation of a hospital with track record of losing money.”
“I accomplished what I set out to do, which was to demonstrate that the mayor’s decision to have the city take ownership of the hospital was done hastily, without thorough evaluation and without the full understanding or input of the residents, who now have to shoulder a $52 million debt,” said Mason.
Note: Judge O’Shaughnessy said that the information provided to the State Local Finance Board by Ricky Mason (Councilwoman Beth Mason’s husband) about the hospital’s financing was “both compelling and informative.” To review a video of Ricky Mason’s testimony go to www.wethepeoplereports.com