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County Medical Center Trustee Dismissed By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor

Friday February 24, 2006

A controversial trustee on the Alameda County Medical Center Board of Directors has been removed by the president of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors because of complaints from fellow board members, but there is question whether Supervisor Keith Carson has the legal authority to do so. 

The Alameda County Medical Center includes Highland Hospital in Oakland—which serves the majority of Berkeley trauma and emergency patients—as well as San Leandro’s Fairmont Hospital, John George Psychiatric Pavilion, and three county outpatient clinics. The center is overseen by an 11 member board of trustees chosen by the County Board of Supervisors. 

Carson announced the removal of Dr. Gwen Rowe-Lee Sykes effective this coming Monday in a terse Feb. 15 letter to trustees that gave no cause for his action. 

But in a telephone interview, Carson called Sykes “a knowledgeable person who has raised a number of concerns” at the Medical Center, but said that “a majority of her colleagues said they were having a difficult time conducting business” because of Sykes’ actions on the board. 

“There was always a conflict about issues” between Sykes and other trustees, Carson said, adding that the conflicts “preceded over more than a year.” 

Sykes, who was appointed to the trustee board by Carson in March 2004, is the executive director of the Oakland nonprofit Bay Area Consortium for Quality Health Care, an organization that provides HIV/AIDS counseling as well as other health services in the Bay Area. 

She has chaired the Alameda/ Contra Costa County HIV/AIDS Planning Council and has been a board member of the Berkeley Women’s Health Center. In announcing Sykes’ appointment three years ago, Carson was quoted in the Oakland Tribune as saying that “she has the ability to look at things from a wide view. She understands the financial aspects of community-based organizations.”  

But Sykes says it was her delving into the financial details of ACMC operations that got her out of favor. 

“I was bringing out a lot of things that were critical about the medical center’s operations,” she said. “I was looking into ways to resolve our financial difficulties. My take was different than others, and that caused people to call Keith Carson with complaints about what I was doing. Ultimately, Keith told me he couldn’t handle the people calling him. I like Keith. I was floored by the way he was handling it.”  

Sykes called the financial situation at the medical center “bleak.” 

Sykes, who served as co-chair of the trustee board’s human resources committee and had recently been asked to join the finance committee, called her removal “an act of retaliation.” 

She said that Carson told her “that I had done things inappropriately. He told me that he didn’t want me to raise any more issues.” 

She added that when Carson appointed her in 2004, “he specifically told me to uncover bad management at the medical center. That’s what I was doing. I would never have gotten on the board if I knew it was all a set-up to massage the public.” 

Sykes added that while Carson’s letter put the effective date of her removal as Feb. 27, “I consider my last day was” Feb. 15. “He’s made his decision.” She did not say whether she would appeal her removal. 

Asked who authorized Sykes’ removal from the board, Carson said that he did on his own. 

“She was my appointee,” Carson said. “Supervisors make several such appointments to boards and commissions, and all of the people who are appointed understand that they serve at my pleasure.” 

That assertion is not supported by Alameda County government documents, however. 

An online list of board and commission vacancies posted by the Alameda County Clerk’s office notes that the ACMC’s trustees are “appointed by majority vote of the Board of Supervisors.” 

And the bylaws of the ACMC board, amended in 2003, state that “a Trustee may be removed by the Board of Supervisors during his or her term with or without cause … only upon the affirmative vote for removal of at least four members of the Board of Supervisors.” 

The Alameda County Counsel’s office could not be reached for comment on the issue of appointment or removal of Alameda County Medical Center trustees. 

The Medical Center has run into intense financial and managerial difficulties in recent years, with a deficit reaching as high as $70 million in 2003. The center went through nine CEOs in the past 11 years, including three in one week in 2003. 

In response to those difficulties, trustees cut $23 million from its budget, closed two of its five clinics, and fired the center’s CEO in the summer of 2003. Immediately after the vote, five trustees quit in protest.  

In November of 2003, Alameda County voters approved Measure A, a half-penny sales tax increase to generate $70 for the medical center.  

In February 2004, shortly before Sykes was appointed to the board, trustees installed Tennessee-based turnaround specialist Cambio Health Solutions to analyze the center’s finances at a cost of $3.2 million over 18 months. Cambio later came under criticism from the center’s unionized workers for its management practices, with Service Employees International Union members holding a one-day walkout and picket in August of 2004 to protest staff cutbacks. 

Cambio’s involvement with the medical center ended with the appointment of Wright Lassiter as ACMC CEO last September. 

In 2004, the Alameda County Civil Grand Jury issued a scathing report on the Alameda County Medical Center, noting that “the [Alameda County] Board of Supervisors and later the [medical center] board of trustees allowed top managers over the years to ignore efficiency and responsibility.” 

“As a result of turnover in the CEO position,” the report continued, “the administration is in shambles. ... Entire departments of employees have not received sufficient training or supervision to be able to adequately perform their duties.”