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Empire Editorial: The cost of moving on

Posted: January 12, 2014 - 1:10am

Juneau’s city-owned hospital underwent some key personnel changes recently, but at a cost.

Bartlett Regional Hospital and its staff are a dedicated, hard-working group that provide a much-need service to Juneau and its neighboring communities. Hospital staff are well respected for their professionalism and commitment to helping others, and by no means do we question their patient care. Repeated complaints by employees aimed at the administration and the use of hospital funds, however, do raise some concern.

Today the Juneau Empire reported on three high-level executives with Bartlett Regional hospital who resigned recently, all of whom had been employed just over a year and were able to resign from their positions and fly out of town with a collective $291,000 in severance pay. Their departure followed a two-month investigation into complaints of a hostile work environment, but to date we have no idea who filed the complaints or why. Or if the environment was hostile for the employees or the administration at the top.

What we do know is that a week after the investigation concluded, which according to city and hospital officials found the employee’s claims to be unsubstantiated, former CFO Ken Brough and human resources director Norma Adams signed separation agreements with the hospital. The next month former CEO Christine Harff did the same. The timing and circumstances around the resignations and reason for severance payments brings up more questions than answers. Even still, those questions deserve answering.

Harff, Brough and Adams wouldn’t have been entitled to severance if they simply up and quit, according to their contracts, but city and hospital board officials said none of them were asked to resign. Yet Brough received six months pay plus benefits, as per his separation agreement if he were to be released “without cause”; Adams was paid more than $81,000 despite not having severance guaranteed in her offer letter; and Harff got just two months pay.

There’s more to this story but no one is either willing or legally able to talk about it, and others simply don’t have the answers. After two independent investigations in four years, some light needs to be shed on the situation so employees and members of the public can understand how and why its hospital lost three of its top officials within months of one another.

What could provide many of those answer would be the most recent investigation conducted at Bartlett into the employee’s grievances. Multiple requests by the Empire to obtain a copy of the investigation have been denied, however, on grounds of employee privacy. The documents requested contain information about a publicly-owned entity and may concern public officials, therefore the public’s right to know should have precedence.

Most importantly, stakeholders need to know what’s being done to ensure more costly investigations — or payouts to short-term administrators — doesn’t become a trend that happens again in another year, or two, or three.

Bartlett’s board president said they will reevaluate some processes when they hire the next CEO. Mayor Merrill Sanford said there will be more visibility moving forward with the city assuming HR duties at the hospital. We see these as positive steps toward providing more oversight where it’s needed, but there still is a need for transparency for what has already transpired.

If the former administrators were victims of baseless accusations, and they were in fact the ones working in a hostile environment, then they deserve for that information to be made public before another CEO is placed in the hot seat. But if there was some truth to employees’ claims, they deserve for their grievances to be heard and acted on.

If Bartlett was a privately-owned hospital residents would have no right to information about its inner workings and expenses. But that isn’t the case. Bartlett is publicly-owned by the City and Borough of Juneau, and as such when speculation about leadership, or lack thereof, and accusations by employees begin swirling around town, the public and hospital employees need to know what’s happening and what specifically is being done to address the issue.

• Anyone with information to share on this subject can contact the Juneau Empire at 586-3740

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