Last week, an earthquake shook liquor bottles from shelves in Trinidad. Meanwhile, Colorado Springs experienced its own tectonic shift.
Here, rumblings signaled a possible transfer of power from City Council to a band of business and community people, dubbed the Regional Leadership Forum.
Three forum members — two developers and a former soft-drink bottler — now sit at ground zero in mapping the future of city-owned Memorial Health System, a decision that one observer labels "the USOC deal on steroids."
It begs the question: What do these guys know about health care?
"About the same amount as Jan Martin and her group," says Mayor Steve Bach, who recommended the forum be allowed a say-so on Memorial.
That seems unlikely, considering the group led by Council President Pro Tem Jan Martin, which is overseeing requests for proposals (RFPs) to lease Memorial, had included three Memorial trustees — until it, at Council's behest, ousted them last week to make way for the Leadership Forum trio.
Regardless, there's a difference between Martin and the Leadership Forum's members. Martin was elected to office, and is accountable to voters.
Two former Councilors — Randy Purvis and Bach's former mayoral competitor, Richard Skorman — say they can't recall ever giving the business community such a role involving a city asset.
Joining the group
Last week, Council made room on the task force for businessman Phil Lane, who used to run the local Pepsi distributorship; Doug Quimby, of La Plata Communities and board chair of the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp.; and Chris Jenkins, president of Nor'wood Development Group.
Jenkins, with his father, David, pumped nearly $800,000 into the $1 million "Vote yes" campaign for the strong-mayor ballot measure last year, which led to Bach's election in May. (The Jenkinses didn't contribute to Bach or any mayoral candidate.)
"The point is not that they're experts, but that they're leaders in the community," Bach says of Lane, Quimby and Jenkins, "and with the agreement of City Council, they should be able to entertain proposals from experts who are in the business of health care, and select one of those and then shepherd that process forward."
How does the Leadership Forum slide into the process at the 11th hour? The answer lies in how we got to this point.
Back in 2009, the Council-appointed Sustainable Funding Committee recommended Memorial's governance and ownership be revisited. In response, Council appointed a Citizens Commission, which had more than 50 public meetings and spent about $400,000 of Memorial's money studying options.
In November 2010, the commission recommended the hospital become an independent nonprofit to give it flexibility and freedom to integrate with other medical providers without the constraints of government ownership. Without that ability to integrate, the commission said, Memorial can't compete.
Council agreed and created a task force to write an agreement to prepare for a ballot measure. (Voters must approve any change in Memorial's ownership.)
Eventually the business community and local governments pitched in to hire Angelou Economics of Austin, Texas, to find answers. Called "Operation 60ThirtyFive" after the city's altitude, the $160,000 effort was overseen by Phil Lane. Among the consultant's conclusions: Leadership and community collaboration were lacking, and tax-limitation laws prevented the government from funding critical capital projects.
From that, the Regional Leadership Forum was born. It includes business interests but also arts and education leaders — though the Indy couldn't track down an actual member list, and meeting notices and minutes don't seem to be posted publicly. It's not clear if citizens are welcome at the twice-monthly meetings, which "move around" from place to place, says Dave Csintyan of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, a Leadership Forum member.
As the commission undertook the Memorial study, the business community was MIA. But so were elected officials, Jenkins says: "No one was there to facilitate on the political front, other than the folks at Memorial. There was this black hole, this vacuum that needed to be filled."
Five days before Council voted Aug. 23 to invite Lane, Quimby and Jenkins to the Memorial table, a meeting took place in Bach's office with Martin and Jenkins. Bach says Quimby, Lane and Councilman Merv Bennett also attended.
According to Bach, Martin rejected the forum's idea to sell Memorial. But later that day, Jenkins recapped the meeting in a letter to Bach and Martin, saying, "The purpose of this letter is to detail the plan of the Regional Leadership Forum to analyze different options for the hospital," including "to craft an RFP (or multiple RFP's) that will allow potential partners and acquirers an opportunity to fairly evaluate MHS." (Emphasis added.)
Jenkins' letter went on to say the forum plans to retain outside experts for assistance and will "manage the process from RFP distribution to the receipt and evaluation of proposals."
Asked this week why he's qualified to do this work, Jenkins said, "Good question. I don't know that there were a set of qualifications that were given to me. I think it's a community asset that needs lots of different perspectives, including business and real estate perspectives, which I do bring to the table."
Bach also requested that Brian Bahr, a developer and failed mayoral candidate, and former state Sen. Andy McElhany, who has advocated a sale, serve as his representatives in discussions. Martin rejected the idea. Wednesday, Bach placed himself on the task force.
Shifting out of neutral
Unsurprisingly, the recent developments have not pleased Memorial representatives. "Replacing Memorial board members with non-elected real estate developers," spokesman Brian Newsome says, "runs the risk of turning a conversation about community and care into one about cash."
But Jenkins denies the Leadership Forum wants to cash out Memorial and use the money for business-friendly projects, such as building a downtown convention center. (State law has been interpreted to require cash from a sale to go toward health care, though state Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, led an attempt to change that in the last legislative session and could pursue it again.)
The forum's agenda, Jenkins says, is to provide leadership that "can help an asset like Memorial achieve a better result for the community. This issue was divisive in the community, and what we were trying to do is bring this composition of folks to the table to try to help.
"If that's being construed as a takeover, I'm sorry, we're being misunderstood. It's not."
Although Martin says there's value to having Memorial reps on the task force, she agreed to oust them to make way for Jenkins, Quimby and Lane "to move this whole process forward." She says it's been "stuck" for six months.
Martin notes that her group had already done a lot of work establishing lease requirements, which she says will provide the foundation for an RFP. Unless, of course, the new contingent pushes a new set of criteria. The next meeting, which is open to the public, is at 8 a.m. Friday at City Hall.
In case anyone wonders if this is the new normal — community people with little or no pertinent experience making the call on city contracts — it might be.
"I don't know what the role [of the forum] would be," Bach says, "but hopefully [it would be] supportive of major decisions as we go forward."
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