SVDH Board has power over senior team
Fired hospital CEO left in the dark
It has been four days since Sierra View District Hospital released Joe Stewart as its chief executive officer — leaving him, and the community, with more questions than answers.
“It’s extremely disturbing. They have to answer to the community. That hospital belongs to all of us. We want answers,” said Joann Eckles, a longtime Springville resident.
Eckles is not the only one who feels that way — numerous residents have been left with one question: what happened?
Stewart was released by the SVDH Board in a 3-to-2 vote — with directors Richard Hatfield, Gaurang Pandya and Kent Sorrells voting to oust him, and Ashok Behl and Jasvir Sidhu voting to keep him — Tuesday during a special board meeting so heavily attended it was moved to the hospital’s largest multi-purpose room. Even so, it was standing-room-only, with a security guard stationed at the door to prevent more than 100 other concerned citizens from entering. Many more remained outside the hospital, holding signs and chanting “Joe Stewart — CEO.”
“It was politics as usual. That vote was nothing but a formality,” said Jaisi Sidhu, one of the community’s youngest physicians. “They did not speak for the people. I think it was very disrespectful of the board to not pay attention to what the public was saying.”
Jaisi Sidhu found it odd senior managers did not step forward to voice their opinions if they were upset.
Community members were not the only ones left in the dark. Stewart said he did not have reasons for his dismissal or answers to his questions.
On Wednesday, Stewart said he continued to wonder what were the real reasons behind the decision leading to his release.
“That’s the whole reason I asked for that meeting to be held open session,” Stewart said. “I was let go without cause. It was an at-will contract, meaning the board has the power to fire you with or without cause. They can say, ‘It’s just not working, we’re going to exercise the option to severance this contract without cause.’”
The one thing he was told, he said, is that he took too long with projects — something he says was out of his control.
Stewart talked Wednesday about the expansion of the hospital’s laboratory and plans begun in 2011 to replace the hospital’s small facility, which was in danger of losing accreditation due to its cramped quarters. But, there were several roadblocks along the way, including addressing residential concern and meeting with the Carmelita Street residents, all prior to Stewart’s arrival, as well as the need to wait for Porterville City Council approval.
In addition, all construction or renovation in an acute hospital in California must be OK’d by the state, he said.
“In this case, it has to be approved by the state of California — a painstaking process that can take eight to 12 months. A new hospital would take two to four years,” Stewart said. “I’d love to have a shovel in the ground but the city, state, drawings, and being in process of review. I wish I could move faster but I can’t. I can not put a shovel in the ground until it is approved. There is nothing I can do about that.”
Stewart, who moved to Porterville on Dec. 30, 2011, also pointed out that just prior to starting on Jan. 2, 2012, he learned that the hospital’s senior management team had contracts with 12 to 18 months severance.
“The contracts also indicated that no senior team member could be fired without [approval from] the majority of the board,” Stewart said. “That is working for [the board], not for me.
That caused a lot of confusion and a lack of coordinating management effort through 2012.”
Stewart said he had never seen such a thing, and had any other CEO seen that contract, he or she might have thought twice before accepting the duties.
“Looking at my job description, it clearly states I have sole authority,” Stewart said. “The [senior management] contract contradicts that.”
He was shocked to learn that the board was the senior team’s boss.
Stewart also mentioned things did not settle down following the release of senior vice president and chief financial officer Doug Dickson, who had been with the hospital since 1998. He was let go on June 5, 2012. At that time, the hospital had hired a facilitator to evaluate the senior staff, Stewart who had been newly appointed at the time, and the board of directors.
“It was [the facilitator’s] information that led to [Dickson’s dismissal],” Hatfield said at the time, adding Dickson was let go “without cause.”
At the time, Hatfield said the facilitator was brought in to “make sure it was a team that would continue to work well” and that no additional changes were anticipated.
“Things didn’t settle down,” Stewart said Wednesday.
During a June board meeting, Stewart reviewed the 2013 Capital and Operations Budget, referring to several hospital numbers as he explained operating gains and losses from 2008 to 2012 as “A Tale of Two Cities.”
In 2008, the hospital had a net revenue of $118 million, total expenses of $112.9, with an operating gain of $6.4 million and net gain of $15.3 million.
By 2011, those numbers were listed as $126 million in revenue, $119.9 million in expenses, $7.6 million operating gain and $14.8 million in net gains.
“The thing that makes me nervous is not that it’s 100 percent accurate. What I am most worried about is that it is disappearing,” Stewart reported in mid-June 2012.
“It was a dramatic decline in finances that required action. We needed to get things to change and we needed to do things different,” Stewart said. “That seemed to be festering. It’s the closest thing to bothering [Hatfield] that I can think of.”
Regardless, now that he has been released, Stewart said he has only made one firm decision.
“My only decision is I’m staying here. This is my home and I’m going to really try to work positively and proactively with the community to make sure this hospital does stay open, especially with all of the changes coming up,” Stewart said. “If I can’t do it sitting as the
CEO, I will do it with some kind of community help.”
Stewart said he feels he owes it to the community to stay and help.
“I don’t want to be that negative person that turns against others. I want to say, ‘What else can I do?’ I want to keep going to the same church. I want to keep going to the same clubs. I want to be proactive and do something positive instead of just blow off steam,” Stewart said. “I want to stay, not because I have to, but because I want to. I owe that to the community and to all the people who have wished me well, sent me emails. So many came and told me they believed in me. I want to see if I can repay their confidence, right here, in this town. I want to keep faith with all these people. So, no, I am not going to run out of this community.”
Contact Esther Avila at 784-5000, Ext. 1045. Follow her on Twitter @Avila_recorder.