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Panel had a tough task made public

Posted: February 23, 2014 - 1:07am

There were more than a few shocked faces in the Evans Government Auditorium Thursday night.

Those shocked and puzzled expressions came at the end of a meeting of the county’s Hospital Selection Committee, when after about three hours of hearing presentations from the area’s three largest hospitals, committee members abruptly voted to take pass on backing any one proposal and handed the matter back to the commission without recommendation.

Some were questioning whether the committee had served any purpose at all, since it had not accomplished what it had been empaneled to do -- make a recommendation for commissioners to consider.

But as usual, this situation and the way the committee came to that vote is a bit more complicated than it might seem on the surface.

Needless to say, this was not what commissioners had intended when they came up with the process to select what might be the first hospital in Columbia County.

From the beginning the plan was to set up a process in which proposals from the three hospitals -- Doctors, Georgia Regents and University -- could be examined and vetted in a closed meeting by the 11 members. The committee members volunteered for the job with the understanding that they would be able to discuss the proposals candidly and ask questions, without the fear that their words or opinions might be held against them outside of that meeting room.

They had a difficult task before them and many had personal and professional ties with one or more of the institutions under consideration.

That all changed rather rapidly on Monday, when the Georgia Attorney General ruled the meeting and the deliberations had to be open to the public.

This came about because of a challenge from The Augusta Chronicle, which I supported.

The reasoning was that since this committee should be subject to Georgia’s Open Meetings law and since the hospitals had already made their proposals a matter of public record, the public should be allowed to observe the committee’s proceedings.

I still think it was a sensible ruling, based on the law and the circumstances. However, I also see how it placed these panel members in a difficult situation. This was not what they had signed up for. Most would not have volunteered for the job, had they know what would ultimately occur.

Committee Chairman Jim Whitehead said that after all the presentations had been made in public -- with all five commissioners in attendance -- the committee had really done all it could do and he did not want to force its members to face the kind of scrutiny that surely comes with public deliberations.

I certainly understand his point of view.

I spoke to eight of the committee members the next day. Most wished the meeting could have continued in private and of the eight, only five would say they had formed an opinion about the proposals, and they did not all agree. It is possible that the committee would not have come to a consensus at all.

Could they have continued to deliberate in public? Perhaps, but I also think it should have been designed that way from the outset.

We live in a society in which the public’s business is done in public. It can be messy, uncomfortable and ugly at times, but that is how we do things.

I’m not faulting the committee members. The came into this with one set of rules and expectations and had the rug pulled out from under them.

Now it will be up to our elected officials to take on the task. It won’t be easy to decide, and they will have to conduct their discussions in the open.

They deserve our guidance and support and a good measure of patience as well.

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