After a contentious debate lasting almost two hours, the Mesquite City Council ultimately voted to continue its lawsuit against Mesa View Regional Hospital even though it seemed early on that there would be a 3-2 split to settle out of court.
The lawsuit began when the hospital announced it was closing its inpatient labor and delivery and nursery services Oct. 1, 2018. The city said that would violate the provisions of a 2002 development agreement that the hospital provide an obstetrics unit with a nursery.
The hospital cited a declining birth rate in Mesquite as the basis for its move, stating “Over the past several years the demand for inpatient obstetrical services has decreased by more than 74 percent. In 2008 Mesa View had 236 deliveries for the year as compared to only 63 deliveries in 2017, or about 1 delivery per week.”
The hospital said it would cost about $50,000 a month to continue providing the services and that it was not cost effective to do so.
Beginning in late February, Ned Hill, Mesa View CEO, began negotiating with Mesquite Mayor Al Litman and the council members directly. Two council members, Brian Wursten and George Rapson, refused to communicate directly with Hill saying it was the city attorney’s responsibility to negotiate.
The mayor and three councilors, Annie Black, George Gault and Sandra Ramaker, continued discussing a proposed settlement directly with Hill through email correspondence and face-to-face meetings. Litman said no violations of the open meeting law occurred in the negotiations.
Part of the proposed settlement would place an elected official, either the mayor or a council member, on the hospital’s board of directors as a voting member, provide semi-annual progress reports to the public, and require the city to abandon legislative Senate Bill 63 that would allow competition within the local service area.
Wursten and Rapson contended that the city was obligated to continue the lawsuit because the hospital violated its contract and abandoning the legal action would set a dangerous precedent for other entities who might want to void their contractual responsibilities.
Wursten also said the lawsuit was entering its “discovery” phase where each side could “find out the truth. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.”
Gault said he didn’t see any benefit of continuing the lawsuit that may not be settled before the original development agreement expires in 2022. He was pleased with the joint planning and coordination between the council and the hospital.
Citing a lack of information and communication from the lawsuit’s beginning, Ramaker said “I don’t think this was a good development agreement to begin with.” She said that dealing with the open meeting law requiring no more than two elected officials to communicate with each other made crafting the proposed settlement an even harder process.
“Pushing this lawsuit isn’t going to bring back OB/Gyn services,” Ramaker said. “I’m glad to reach this agreement and I’m happy to see this go away.”
Black refuted earlier allegations that the city wasn’t spending any money on the lawsuit citing budgetary allotments of $430,000 a year for the city attorney’s office plus a $16,667 monthly retainer for outside attorney services. “What do we ultimately win,” Black asked if the lawsuit continues. “A lot of people have opinions about this without doing any research.”
Rapson said the genesis of the lawsuit “is to determine if the development agreement is enforceable or not. That’s what this is about. They say it’s not, we say it is.”
Until this point, it appeared that the lawsuit would be dropped by a 3-2 vote. But then, Steve Lisk, a Mesquite resident and private attorney, cited several email exchanges he had received through official requests for information regarding the settlement negotiations.
“With all due respect Mayor, I do believe these emails violated open meeting laws,” Lisk said. He lambasted the three councilors, Gault, Ramaker and Black, for negotiating with the hospital without input or involvement from the city attorney, Bob Sweetin.
“It’s clear from the email chain that I have that Ned Hill [Mesa View CEO] is meeting with Mayor Litman and council members George Gault and Annie Black. I also have emails showing that Ned is trying to meet with George Rapson and Brian Wursten.
“What I don’t have is any communication through email where Sandra Ramaker and Ned Hill have a meeting set up or referenced. And yet, when Ned emails his group of supporters he includes Sandra Ramaker. Why? Because it’s clear that Ned Hill is having a separate meeting with Sandra Ramaker. Otherwise I can infer that she would not be included just as Wursten and Rapson weren’t.
“This is what I know. Three members of council and the mayor are in favor of dropping the lawsuit and approving the settlement agreement that blatantly favors the hospital in spite of breaching the development agreement. Ned Hill was in communication with this group referencing meetings and asking for guidance on how to proceed. I believe this is evidence there was a violation of open meeting laws.”
Lisk announced that he was filing a complaint with the Nevada Attorney General regarding the alleged law violation. He asked the council to delay any action on dropping the lawsuit until the issue was investigated and ruled upon.
Soon after Lisk’s comments, the council, mayor and city attorney went behind closed doors for about 15 minutes. Upon returning to the dais, Councilwoman Black said “I’m feeling pretty discouraged. I went into these negotiations with Mesa View trying to do something good. I don’t think everything needs to go to court. People can converse. But that doesn’t seem to be the mentality of a lot of people around here. You’re trying to do something good and then you get a complaint filed with the AG because that’s suspicious. If that’s suspicious, that’s sad.”
Gault then made a motion prefrencing it with “I agree with a lot of what Annie [Black] said. We entered into this in good faith, trying to break an impasse and having an informal negotiation that could be brought back to council. We were aware of the open meeting laws. We made real efforts to stay clear of that conflict. Time will tell whether we were successful. My motion is to direct the staff to stay the course on both Senate Bill 63 and the lawsuit.”
The council voted unanimously in favor of Gault’s motion, 5-0, and dropped the settlement agreement.