VENTURA COUNTY: Judge Okays CMH Ballot Initiative
Ventura County Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh Friday ordered the county to place Community Memorial Hospital's initiative, which would divert $261 million in tobacco settlement funds from the county to seven private area hospitals, on the November ballot, the Ventura County Star reports. Lawyers for the county and CMH faced off in court last Monday during a two-hour hearing on the initiative. Although he expressed "grave doubts" about the initiative's legality, Walsh stated that the county "had not met the high standard of proof" required to keep the initiative off the ballot. Showing support for the county, Walsh wrote in a four-page ruling that the county's attorney made an "articulate presentation" that the initiative interferes with the county's budget process, calls for a gift of public money to reimburse hospital debts and "requires the county to illegally disgorge payments already received and spent." Walsh added, "None of these arguments can be viewed as a contrivance. Each and all of them have created in this court's mind serious or grave doubts as to the legality of the initiative." However, Walsh stated that these arguments were to be raised after the election. Supervisor Judy Mikels indicated that the county will challenge the initiative if it passes this fall. Assistant County Counsel Noel Klebaum said, "We are encouraged by [Walsh's] grave doubts about its legality. And we believe the matter will be declared illegal if it is passed by the electorate." CMH spokesperson Mark Barnhill said of the ruling, "The judge has made it clear the county acted improperly by refusing to put the initiative on the ballot, and noted pretty clearly that the merits of the measure is a decision best made by the voters" (Koehler, 7/29).
A Hefty Price Tag
CMH has spent nearly $520,000 on legal and public relations fees for the initiative, making it one of the most expensive ballot measures in county history, the Los Angeles Times reports. Although six other private hospitals stand to gain from the initiative, CMH alone has footed the entire bill. However, CMH Executive Director Michael Bakst said he prefers this scenario, so that he can take the lead and develop the strategy. While the cost is steep, Bakst said that he hired the "top lawyers and a public relations firm" to "ensure a good chance of victory." But Supervisor Frank Schillo said, "This is a not-for-profit hospital spending all their profit when they should be spending that money to help the indigent. They have a penchant for spending a lot of money on initiatives and it looks like they are going all out on this." Bakst countered that CMH was forced to spend additional money "rebutting ... distortions and inaccuracies put out by the Board of Supervisors and media." Bakst added, "We can't know how much distortion we'll need to correct" (Kelly, 7/28).