June 6, 2017 10:12:06 AM
Oktibbeha County voters will decide the fate of a potential OCH Regional Medical Center transaction in November.
Supervisors voted 4-1 Monday to schedule the referendum alongside Nov. 7's special election for chancery clerk, with District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer opposing the matter.
The referendum will strictly adhere to whether to proceed with a transaction without broaching any previously submitted offers or their specifics. Its yes-or-no question will simply ask if the board of supervisors should be "authorized to sell or lease with an option to sell" the publicly owned facility.
Supervisors amended the previously issued request for proposals associated with the potential hospital transaction by moving the deadline for bids from July to Sept. 15 and certified a pro-OCH petition calling for November's vote.
The decision to schedule the referendum comes after the hospital's administration and board of trustees balked at providing certain data -- information OCH considers private and potentially hazardous to its business operations if obtained by competitors -- to an online data repository for prospective bidders. A May letter from the organization to Trainer also stated the timeline to produce the data was unobtainable and would prevent hospital staff from carrying out their usual day-to-day functions.
About 35 percent of information, both public and confidential, requested in the RFP has been uploaded, OCH Chief Executive Officer Richard Hilton and hospital consultant Ted Woodrell confirmed Monday, but the two sides have not yet come to an agreement on how to proceed with the data in question.
The hospital's May letter stated the hospital would delay uploading certain information until the county electorate decides to continue the transaction process.
Woodrell was expected to meet with hospital officials again Monday to discuss the impasse, but Butler Snow attorney Johnny Healy advised supervisors, who have statutory authority over OCH, they could file a legal challenge in chancery court if the issue is pushed.
Woodrell also said delaying the information upload could affect the RFP process by limiting potential bidders. Even with the limited data, he confirmed multiple potential bidders, representing hospitals inside and outside Mississippi, have expressed some interest in acquiring OCH.
"We've had numerous conversations with interested, potential respondents. At this point, it's all extremely preliminary. It will all be able to be developed once we get the data into the data room so we can move forward and they can make informed decisions on whether or not they want to participate," he said.
A referendum was needed after more than 1,500 qualified Oktibbeha County voters petitioned the board of supervisors for an election on OCH's fate. State law guiding public hospital transactions allows for 10 percent of a county's qualified electorate or 1,500 voters -- whichever is fewer -- to call for such a ballot initiative.
"All along, we've been saying that this process needs to come to a close under the specific steps of the statute. (The lingering threat of a transaction) has been dragged out a long time. Now, the light at the end of the tunnel is there," Hilton said. "Whatever the will of the people is, that's what we need to (follow)."
Moving the OCH question to the ballot box does not come as a surprise, as many supervisors have publicly said throughout last and this year that they expected a potential transaction to be decided by county voters since the threshold to force such an election is, by law, so low.
Many supporting the exploratory process, including District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller, have called for an election while continuing the debate.
District 3 Supervisor Marvell Howard first called for an election to be held within 60 days, saying the process needs to be resolved soon in order to spare Oktibbeha County from additional unnecessary expenses.
His motion was rescinded before the board met with Butler Snow attorneys in executive session. Following the closed-door meeting, Howard supported Miller's motion to hold the referendum in November.
"If the will of the people says sell it, then we just chug-a-lug you all the information you want. But if the people of the county say keep our hospital, then we can stop this process right here (without releasing) confidential information to our competitors," Howard said. "Here's the bottom line: The taxpayers are catching the brunt of this. The hospital has to have more staff to get this information out and pay overtime -- that's costing the taxpayers; we have to continue to pay this legal team to move through the process -- that's costing the taxpayers; and whenever we set an election -- that's costing the taxpayers.
"Right now, we're sitting up here arguing about the taxpayers' money being spent when there's a clear avenue to settle this," he added.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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