Council votes down Med. Center inquiry

Solicitor cites no authority
Thu, 06/20/2019 - 7:15pm
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Members of the community packed into the New Shoreham Town Hall on Wednesday night to weigh in on whether the Town Council should pursue an inquiry into the conduct and practices of the Block Island Health Services board. The fervor over the subject was fueled by the recent firing of Nurse Practitioner Liz Dyer by BIHS Medical Director Dr. Mark Clark, who at the time had submitted his letter of resignation. A week later, Clark rescinded his resignation.

What ensued during the meeting were impassioned speeches, questions concerning Dyer’s firing, and a fiery salvo, critical of the BIHS board, from the doorway by Dr. John Willis. First Warden Ken Lacoste, who had begun the meeting by calling for no personal attacks and civil conduct, said, “You’re out of order,” at Willis who was standing in the doorway. Willis then turned and headed out the door.

At the beginning of the discussion, the town council discussed the matter briefly among themselves after Lacoste read a personal statement. Councilor Sven Risom read a statement of his own as well, noting that personnel decisions were not the council’s business.

Town Solicitor Katherine Merolla informed the council that it did not have legal standing to launch an inquiry into the Medical Center board due to the language in an agreement between the two entities. The town annually funds the Medical Center through community support in its operating and capital budget. In May, the town’s voters authorized the town to provide $300,000 in funding to the Medical Center for fiscal year 2020.

The council voted 4-1, with Councilor Chris Willi dissenting, not to take any action on Rich Tretheway’s request to conduct an inquiry. Lacoste made the motion that was seconded by Councilor Martha Ball.

The “take no action” vote by the town council did not sit well with members of the community, who wanted answers regarding Dyer’s termination, and an inquiry into the board’s conduct.

Resident Sean McGarry said that, “Four years ago to this date I asked you to take action against the board. They had been violating the open meetings act. Four years later, they’re doing the same thing.” McGarry said the town could withhold the Medical Center’s funding if it continues to conduct its business behind closed doors, and in violation of the OMA.

Bob Fallon, who once served on the BIHS board, said McGarry was correct. “The Medical Center bylaws require all of its meetings to be in compliance with the open meetings law. This is your responsibility,” Fallon said to the council, “that the $300,000 is being spent responsibly. Make the Medical Center do what you want. You need to exercise your fiduciary responsibility.” Fallon’s comments were met with a round of applause.

Eileen Birk said that at the Financial Town Meeting in May, the Medical Center presented its budget request for $300,000 as if “everything was going well. Then we later learned that Dr. Clark had tendered his resignation. It’s concerning,” she said.

“It’s the same problem at the preschool,” said Molly O’Neill, noting the violation of the OMA. “Meetings aren’t advertised properly. This is our taxpayer dollars. The fact that enough people are upset about it is enough of a reason to address it.”

Naomi Kerest, who defended Dr. Clark and his management of the facility, and got into a brief, heated back and forth with McGarry, said she felt the discussion ignored the quality of care that was provided at the Medical Center. “The quality of care at the Medical Center is better than it has ever been,” she said. “I was on the hiring committee to hire Dr. Clark. I stand by that decision.”

In the end, Lacoste said if members of the community wanted to document what they thought were violations of the open meetings act, they could submit them to the town council for review.  

Visitor’s Center funding

The Town Council agreed to cut the rent in half for the Visitor’s Center in Old Harbor to help ease the financial burden of the Chamber of Commerce so it can fund two seasonal staff positions at the facility for the summer season.

The council voted unanimously to amend its lease agreement, reducing the annual $11,700 rent on the building to $5,850 for the period of Jan. 15, 2019 to Jan. 14, 2020. The Chamber of Commerce had initially requested a one-time payment of $10,000 from the town council to defray the cost of employing tourist counselors at the facility during the summer season. Board members Jennifer Phillips and Lucinda Morrison campaigned for funding from the town, but the town council did not entertain their request.

Lacoste noted that during the budget process in the spring he would be open to forgiving some of the rent on the property as a way to ease the Chamber of Commercial’s financial burden. The council rejected a $20,000 request by Cindy Lasser, the Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce, during the budget process. At the time, the council advised Lasser to request the funding from the Tourism Council.

Lasser and the Tourism Council met to discuss the matter a number of times, with the Tourism Council agreeing to help. At the end of May, the Chamber of Commerce received $10,000 from the Tourism Council for helping to fund management of the facility.

Lasser then brought a request to the council to fund the balance of $10,000. Town Manager Ed Roberge, acting on direction of the town council at its June 5 meeting, drafted an amended lease agreement. During the council’s meeting on Wednesday, Roberge recommended that the council execute the agreement. According to Roberge, the town’s lease agreement is in its fourth and final year.

Notice of violation

The council read into the record that Building Official Marc Tillson issued a notice of violation to Blake and Paul Filippi on June 6. In the notice, Tillson stated that the Filippis violated the town’s zoning ordinance by installing a chain barrier within the public right of way on land in an area near the Harbormaster’s shack at Old Harbor. The existence of this public right of way in that area is in dispute. Tillson ordered the chain removed within 10 days. The Filippis can appeal the matter to the Zoning Board of Review within 20 days.

The next Town Council meeting is scheduled for Monday, July 1 at 7 p.m.