The Pardee Hospital Board of Directors on Wednesday drew a distinction between its strict policy governing campaign activity and an effort by Park Ridge Health supporters that appears to endorse candidates who would block Pardee's planned clinic in Fletcher.
The two Henderson County hospitals have been waging war behind the scenes and at times publicly over Pardee's effort to build a $35 million medical clinic in Fletcher in a joint arrangement with Mission Hospitals of Asheville. Park Ridge says Mission's move to northern Henderson County is a predatory advance on its market; Pardee officials say the challenges of the health care economics and growth forecasts in the area make the countyline project essential to Pardee's financial health.
At the regular meeting of the board, Chairman Bill Moyer distributed a copy of a "Voter Information Guide" from a group calling itself Friends of Park Ridge Hospital.
"The Voter Guide is being distributed to inform you about the Republican County Commissioner and the state Senate candidates' position on the Buncombe-Henderson County line project that Pardee Hospital and Mission Hospital plan on building near Park Ridge Hospital. Park Ridge Hospital strongly opposes building the project," it said.
The sheet describes the positions of candidates running for two Henderson County Commission seats and for state Senate District 48, a seat currently held by Senate Rules Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Hendersonville.
All the races are Republican primaries with no Democrats running in the fall.
In County Commission District 2, incumbent Charlie Messer, a non-voting member of the Pardee board, supports and venture. Dennis Justice opposes it.
In District 5, incumbent Bill O'Connor opposes the joint venture and Jeff McKinney favors it.
FOR, AGAINST JOINT VENTURE
The Friends of Park Ridge sheet said that the positions of three other candidates, Grady Hawkins, Jesse Norton and Michael Rhodes, are "not known." Hawkins said in a League of Women Voters campaign forum that the Board of Commissioners, which appoints the Pardee board, should let the Pardee directors make business decisions as they see fit. Norton and Rhodes have skipped recent forums, and run invisible campaigns.
Apodaca favors the joint venture and his opponent, Fremont V. Brown III, opposes it.
"I just wanted to make you aware, some people have talked to me about the propriety of this," Moyer said as he handed out the Park Ridge "Voter Guide." "We're staying out of this but I wanted you to be aware of what is going on, and what is circulating, and you can see now they're trying to get their message out with respect to the joint venture."
Moyer, who has a long history of service with the Pardee board, both as a county commissioner and now as a regular member, said the policy goes back to an election when some Pardee board members became a little too active in campaigning.
"This came about as a result of people going out and basically saying I'm on the board of Pardee Hospital, and I endorse so-and-so, with the connotation that it was coming from Pardee Hospital and not just from the person. So we tried to split that hair and come up with a policy not to keep people out of politics but (to require) that the endorsement (from a board member) should not imply that it's an endorsement from Pardee Hospital."
Messer immediately responded that the Pardee policy would seem to disarm him while Justice and other Park Ridge supporters shell him with a barrage of misleading comments. The chairman distributed a memo to employees from Pardee's top personnel officer that spelled out rules on political activity.
While Pardee "encourages you to exercise your right to vote and support the candidates of your choice," the policy bars them from electioneering on hospital time of from identifying themselves as representatives of Pardee "in any political activity, including letters to the newspaper, magazines or other media," the memo said.
The policy governing political activity by the Board of Directors bars any activity "that could or might imply the endorsement of any political candidate by the hospital."
The joint venture "is the big issue on the agenda for this year," Messer said. "I speak my piece why I'm in favor of the joint venture. I'm not misleading why I'm for the joint venture but it seems like other people are. If I can't state the facts, you know me well enough, I'm not going to state them at all."
Moyer agreed that for a sitting county commissioner in a tough election fight, the policy is restrictive.
"I was in that position too," Moyer said.
'A BIT RESTRICTIVE'
Board member Fielding Lucas has spent the past 20 years as a conservative firebrand and frequent letter writer. "I was thinking about trying (to write one about the joint venture) and I must confess I find this a bit restrictive," he said.
Graham Fields, assistant to the president at Park Ridge Health, said the facility had no connection with the guide.
"Oh goodness, we're not involved in it at all," he said in an interview with HendersonvilleLightning.com. "I got tipped off that it's a very real group that's been reading the paper" and wants to support Park Ridge. The supporters' use of the word hospital proves that they're not affiliated with Park Ridge, which has carried out an extensive rebranding to Park Ridge Health.
Pardee CEO Jay Kirby said he thought it was important to review the rules as the campaign heats up and Pardee leaders get pressure to speak up.
"These are the policies as they stand today," Kirby said. "This is my first turn at an election cycle here. As we came into this, I have received various information from members of this board, I have received various information from members of the medical staff, I have received various questions from the community and the team members here. My position is to fall back on the existing policies that are in place as adopted for our team members and for our board, and that's how I'll continue to operate" unless the board changed the policy.
Moyer immediately discouraged any effort to tinker with the policy.
"We won't do it in closed session today because I guarantee we spent a lot of time on this" when it was adopted, he said. "This is a tricky thing — you change one word and all of a sudden it's a different intent."
Messer expressed frustration that the voters need "correct information ... to make up their mind whether they want this joint venture or not."
Kirby said the hospital would supply that.
"You will receive some messaging strategies today, and we will be sending that messaging out," he said.
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