July 17, 2017 10:03:19 AM
Oktibbeha County is seeking an opinion from Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood's office on whether OCH Regional Medical Center officials can intentionally withhold information meant for prospective hospital bidders.
District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer confirmed he authorized a letter Friday asking if the OCH Board of Trustees has authority to deny or delay complying with the county's request for information associated with a request for proposals for the hospital and if the publicly owned health care facility can spend money to influence an election on a potential sale or lease.
It could take at least a month for a response to arrive after it is sent to Jackson.
"My thinking is the AG's opinion will confirm what we already know," said Trainer, who maintains the OCH Board of Trustees must follow the will of the board of supervisors, which controls the hospital by statute. "Whether or not that compels them to do something, we'll see.
"I don't see anything they've done besides ramping up their advertising, but you can look at that from different perspectives (with a referendum on a possible sale coming in November). It's all subjective," he added. "Maybe our board will decide to utilize resources to put out factual information (about the hospital and the transactional process). I think, legally speaking, we can."
When he learned of Trainer's intent to seek an opinion from the attorney general's office, OCH Chief Executive Officer Richard Hilton said hospital trustees "would not do anything that would violate state law, and what they do is based on legal advice."
After supervisors approved a request for proposals process seeking offers for OCH, those consulting the county on the process -- Butler Snow attorneys and hospital consultant Ted Woodrell -- sent a 19-page due diligence request for information that would eventually be loaded into an online data room.
In May, a letter from Hilton and hospital trustees to supervisors stated they could not meet a June deadline for the data upload and would delay the release of confidential, non-public information until after the county holds a referendum on the potential sale, which was later scheduled for November.
The process seeking bids for a potential OCH Regional Medical Center transaction "has hit a quiet period," Woodrell said, as hospital staff continue to upload information for prospective bidders.
The online repository is now loaded with about 75 percent of the data the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, through Woodrell and Butler Snow attorneys, requested be made available for the bidding process, Woodrell said.
Despite the progress, Woodrell said there is still information hospital officials deem confidential, and attorneys "have not been able to resolve" how to get OCH to upload the remaining pieces.
Incomplete information will force bidders to "send in responses with a lot of caveats and questions that will have to be dealt with later in the process," Woodrell said.
Hilton estimated the data room is now more than 80 percent full at this point and said the hospital has even provided some information it previously determined to be confidential.
Opening its private records to competitors, especially when a referendum could nix the entire transactional process, could put the hospital at a disadvantage, he said.
"We have completed 182 of the 222 items in that request, and that includes 51 items we've changed our position on," Hilton said. "We've turned over quite a bit of information."
A deadline for questions from bidders on the provided data was set for Aug. 15 after supervisors extended the deadline for bids to Sept. 15 and scheduled the OCH referendum to coincide with Nov. 7's special elections for chancery clerk, circuit clerk and District 1 constable.
Woodrell previously confirmed receiving interest in OCH from in- and out-of-state bidders.
Recently, Hilton said, at least one person, who was acting as an agent on behalf of a prospective bidder, toured the hospital, and Woodrell said additional on-site inspections could be scheduled in the coming weeks.
"I'm pleased with where we are and how the process is going. We do have good communication with potential respondents," Woodrell said.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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