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    A Times Editorial

    Open the door

    Now the St. Petersburg City Council that once wanted Bayfront Medical Center to be public about its dealings with the BayCare Health System has shut the door on the public.

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 11, 2000

    What began as a quest to protect the public's interest in its local hospital has taken a decidedly private turn. The St. Petersburg City Council, full of indignation when Bayfront Medical Center last year refused to publicly discuss entanglements with its Catholic partners in the BayCare Health System, is now hiding behind its own wall of secrecy.

    For the sixth time, council members are scheduled Thursday to head behind closed doors to debate the Bayfront dilemma. The open meetings law exemption they are hiding behind is one that allows a local government to discuss active litigation strategy, but Mayor David Fischer and council members have consistently defended their precipitous lawsuit against Bayfront by saying they don't intend for it to be actively litigated.

    So what is the public left to think?

    Bayfront, impatient with mediation meetings that never produced a mediated settlement, publicly released its own proposal three weeks ago. In it, the hospital offered substantial assurances that religious directives would not affect any future medical policies at Bayfront, and, further, asked to buy the facility for $47-million over 47 years. Mayor Fischer told reporters he supported the offer, because "I don't think politics ought to be in the hospital." Yet when council members then went behind closed doors, Larry Williams emerged to say only that "I don't think we're anywhere" close to settling. No explanation was offered.

    The public also is still in the dark about the mediation talks, because, according to Bayfront board chairman Larry Davis, the city has not agreed to lift the veil. "We think a lot of progress has been made," Davis said recently, "and we want people to be able to judge for themselves."

    So far, the city's Miami attorney, Paul Lipton, has kept the doors closed. He has asked for stacks of hospital records, and he has kept the council from answering to the very people they are supposed to be serving.

    Is the council really willing to force Bayfront to break its ties to BayCare, endangering its financial survival? Does the council think that Bayfront has made insufficient progress in eliminating the BayCare religious directives from influencing Bayfront medical decisions? Is the council opposed, under any circumstances, to selling the hospital? Does the council really think that Bayfront is still stonewalling? Or is this still just about elective abortions, and the fact that Bayfront no longer performs them?

    More than a year ago, council members demanded a public accounting. Now they are the ones meeting in private.

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