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Memorial panel off the track 

Between the Lines

Let's start with a question: Given how the economic climate has impacted Colorado Springs, how would you feel about a special project involving a city enterprise, being run by volunteers, costing an estimated $400,000 so far in unbudgeted money, with no limits, support or guidance from the city?

You'd be appalled, right? You'd wonder how that could happen, after all the craziness and pain of the past few years. You might even assume nothing like that would be possible here anymore.

And you'd be wrong.

Because that initial description is exactly what was launched three months ago, with the special Citizens' Commission on Ownership and Governance of Memorial Hospital. The panel, appointed in February by City Council, has been meeting weekly to address its task of delivering recommendations to Council before the end of 2010 regarding Memorial Health System's future. And the 10-member group — now nine, after chairman Steve Hyde's sudden resignation Monday — has been committing a fast-growing pile of money to consultants, which Memorial is having to fork over without any preconceived plan or budget.

The hospital's tab so far includes staff who have tried to make up for the city not being involved as it is for other boards. And that's just the start of what doesn't make sense about this commission.

The motive might have been smart, with City Council hoping the panel would produce a clear path for dealing with Memorial. It was fairly obvious that some city leaders, including Mayor Lionel Rivera, probably were hoping the commission would recommend selling the health system. The commission also took the hospital issue off Council's plate for the time being.

But the group never has given the appearance of being properly focused. And now it's time to question whether it should simply shut down.

It's obvious the city hasn't cared enough, or perhaps had the resources, to give this panel the support it's needed. In other words, no city staff has helped in preparing agendas, responding to the commission's needs or requests, dealing with open-records requests, and handling other legal questions.

City Attorney Pat Kelly did talk to the commission — once. But no expert help was available recently when the group considered taking secret online votes, which would not be legal. Few commission members have served in any public role, so it's no surprise they would be unaware of laws relating to open meetings and records. With nobody from the city in an advisory role, though, the members were surprise to learn from Indy reporter Pam Zubeck that they were about to do something unlawful.

Until his departure this week, Hyde was practically a one-man show, and many felt certain his intent was to push for selling Memorial. It also was apparent that neither Hyde nor the commission came in with a strategy. They should have, at their first meeting, put out a request for proposals from potential consultants. Instead, the panel waited until the past few weeks — when choosing a consultant suddenly became a huge, urgent priority, to the point of excluding well-qualified candidates from being considered.

There was no public posting for consultants, and no competitive bidding for such a large expenditure. And now, with Hyde gone, the new chair is Bob Lally, who surely means well, but he's the one who proposed that illegal vote.

Something else about this situation has become more clear: The city doesn't really need to move fast (if at all) regarding Memorial, with a likely majority of City Council, including the mayor, in lame-duck status by the end of this year. Given the uncertain economy, along with the "strong mayor" campaign, there's no sense in hurrying. Instead, Council should put off this issue until after the April 2011 municipal election.

Given the increasing likelihood that any proceeds from selling Memorial couldn't go toward the city's financial crisis, as Zubeck has reported ("Don't spend that money yet," cover story, April 29), and considering how much more stable Memorial is today than two years ago, do the city and Memorial really need to continue spending so much time and money for ... what?

This process of launching a Citizens' Commission has been derailed. In fact, the train never has left the station. City Council should pull the plug — now.

(Note: Indy vice president/development Jay Patel, a member of the commission, was not contacted during the reporting of this column.)

routon@csindy.com

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