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Mayor willing to reveal Bayfront negotiations

But first the hospital must agree. A spokeswoman says the hospital is receptive, but needs more information.

By ADAM C. SMITH

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Why would City Hall take the drastic step of suing Bayfront Medical Center last week as both sides were supposed to be ironing out differences about religious influence over the hospital?

It's a secret.

Details of their negotiations remain confidential under terms of their mediation agreement. So while the stakes in this fight could be no less severe than the survival of south Pinellas' main provider of indigent health care, key sticking points in the fight remain largely sealed from public review.

That could change soon.

Mayor David Fischer, in response to a request from the Times, said Wednesday that the city will open its records on the negotiations if Bayfront agrees. A Bayfront spokeswoman said the hospital is receptive to the idea, but first needs to review precisely what the city has in mind.

"We want to be open on this," Fischer said. "At this point, everybody's in the dark as to where we've been going, and thinking maybe the city's been unreasonable. I don't think we have been, so it's time maybe we have some more light on the subject."

The controversy centers on how widely Catholic doctrine shapes or could shape health care policies at Bayfront, a privately run hospital that leases much of its property from the city.

In 1997, Bayfront joined the BayCare Health Alliance of eight Tampa Bay hospitals, including two Catholic-owned hospitals. City leaders discovered last summer that Bayfront had halted rare abortions to accommodate its Catholic partners, and subsequently learned that BayCare partners have a contract that appears to require them to abide by ethical and religious directives of the Catholic Church.

The directives currently affect only abortions at Bayfront, but city officials worry the agreement gives wide latitude for further changes.

Last week, while both sides were still in a voluntary mediation process, the city filed a federal lawsuit against BayCare and Bayfront. The suit asks a federal judge to declare Bayfront's contract with BayCare in violation of constitutional guarantees of separation of church and state. It also asks the judge to void the city's authorization for Bayfront to join BayCare because it was based on misrepresentations.

Bayfront promptly countersued in state court.

Hospital officials said the city's lawsuit stunned them because negotiations were progressing, and their Catholic partners in BayCare had offered the city a number of concessions. But with the mediation records secret, it is impossible to judge the significance of those concessions or the city's insistence that little progress had been made.

Mayor Fischer said Bayfront's offers never sufficiently removed the hospital from religious entanglement. "It's always been a string of controls (from the Catholic partners)," he said. "You'll see in the final (Bayfront offer) that control is very tight."

The city faxed Bayfront attorney Michael Keane a letter late Wednesday afternoon saying that it was willing to release "whatever was discussed during the last round of mediation," said senior assistant city attorney Mirella James.

Bayfront spokeswoman Lisa Patterson said the hospital wasn't immediately ready to commit to waiving confidentiality on the mediation until it reviewed the city's letter.

"We would like to do the same, but it's not just up to Bayfront. BayCare is part of this too," she said. "We have to make sure we take all the appropriate steps to make sure we do this right."

The mediation was being led by former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Ben Overton, who declined to discuss details except to say he has not declared an impasse. As for the two sides agreeing to make public what was on the bargaining table, "That's up to the parties," Overton said.

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