Alameda Med Center Accused of ‘Culture of Intimidation’

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday April 14, 2006

Despite a recent legal setback, the attorney for ousted Alameda County Medical Center Trustee Gwen Rowe-Lee Sykes said that he is working on continuing legal action against what he calls a “culture of intimidation” at the center “which retaliates, penalizes, and punishes people who point out problems” at the center. 

Last week, Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch dismissed Sykes’ Petition for Writ of Mandate seeking to overturn what the court called “Supervisor Keith Carson’s attempted unilateral removal” of Sykes from the Medical Center Board “on or about February 15, 2006.” 

But in denying Sykes’ petition, the court noted that it was “tak[ing] no position on the validity of the Board of Supervisors’ vote on March 14, 2006,” a notation that Sykes’ attorney calls “significant” in any possible future legal action. 

Oakland-based attorney Hab Siam is representing three individuals—Sykes, ACMC Human Resources Director Bill Maddox, and former ACMC manager of medical services Jackie Leo—with pending grievances against the medical center. Siam said by telephone this week that the three cases are interrelated, all involving people who “are not on the medical center ‘team.’ If you’re on the team, you keep the team’s secrets.” 

Siam said that Sykes, Maddox, and Leo all suffered retaliation “because they chose to speak up about the problems at the center.” 

The publicly-financed Medical Center operates several facilities in Alameda County, including Highland Hospital in Oakland and Fairmount Hospital and the John George Psychiatric Pavilion in San Leandro. The center has been embroiled in considerable controversy in recent years, including ongoing budget and labor problems and, most recently, difficulties with its newly-installed Kronos payroll system. 

Siam would not comment on details of the suspension of HR Director Maddox, saying only that “Mr. Maddox categorically denies that the center’s present payroll problems had any basis in his suspension.” 

Siam called the present electronically-based payroll system “a disaster,” and added that “Mr. Maddox had no responsibility for the Kronos system.” Siam said that “it’s not clear to me exactly why” Maddox was suspended, saying that “at this point, it’s a moving target.” 

He added that he is exploring legal options for Maddox, saying that “the law provides remedies for employees for reporting mismanagement, waste, and fraud.” 

Last month, a spokesperson for the medical center would only say that Maddox had been suspended, but could not provide details. 

Sykes was removed from her position as ACMC Board Trustee by a March 14 vote of the Alameda County Board of Trustees. Leo was terminated from her medical services manger position on March 10, and Maddox was placed on administrative leave on March 3. 

Siam has filed a class action suit in California Superior Court in Oakland against the medical center with Leo as the sole named plaintiff. The attorney is considering legal action in the Maddox matter. 

The Public Information Officer for the Medical Center was not in the office this week, and the medical center’s general counsel could not be reached for comment. 

In its response to Sykes’ Petition for Writ of Mandate, the Alameda County general counsel’s office admitted that Carson did not have to power to remove Sykes from the board on his own, stating that “the action of the Board of Supervisors to place [Sykes’] termination as an action item on its March 14, 2006 meeting agenda indicates that as of the date of the issuance of the agenda..., the Board of Supervisors, including President Supervisor Carson, did not recognize Supervisor’s February 16, 2006 [letter to the trustee board announcing Sykes’ removal] to have been effective to remove [Sykes] from the Board of Trustees.” 

But the Alameda County counsel’s office argued—and the court agreed—that the Board of Supervisors’ action in bringing Sykes’ removal up for a vote in March negated Carson’s February action. 

Sykes’ removal from the board has generated controversy in recent weeks, with Carson—who originally nominated her to the board—saying that she had lost her effectiveness as a board member because she had generated considerable opposition among other board members, and Sykes charging that she was removed after raising serious questions about the fiscal management of the medical center. 

A request for Sykes’ removal from the ACMC Board was placed on the consent calendar of the Board of Supervisors’ March 14 agenda. But just prior to the vote on the entire consent calendar, Carson announced that he was “pulling” the Sykes’ item in order to allow two Sykes supporters to speak up for her. 

Meeting observers never heard Carson return the item to the consent calendar, or take it for a separate vote, so it remains unclear whether supervisors ever actually voted to remove Sykes. In addition, because ACMC Board bylaws require a vote of four supervisors to remove an ACMC trustee, Sykes maintains that a vote on her ouster would require a roll-call vote, rather than the voice vote used for the consent calendar. 

In a telephone interview, Siam called the supervisors’ March 14 action “confusing” and “a very sneaky vote. It was done in such a way as to give political cover to the other supervisors. They want to be able to run for office saying that they never actually voted against Gwen Sykes. I think the rest of the supervisors realize that they are playing with fire.” 

In addition, Siam said the March 14 Supervisors action was a “violation of the Brown Act because even people who were present at the meeting did not have an opportunity to know what it was that the supervisors were voting on.” 

Siam said that his office is “looking at every option” to move forward with challenging the board of supervisors’ March 14 action. 

In the meantime, Leo’s class action complaint against the medical center revolves around charges that the center’s payroll system regularly malfunctioned, not crediting workers with the full pay turned in by their supervisors. “ACMC’s disastrous timekeeping system, technology systems and payroll systems have been oftentimes so wildly, incomprehensibly, and unconscionably inaccurate,” Leo’s complaint alleges, “that employees were paid for so little time in proportion to the time they actually worked that those employees’ hourly rates fell below the minimum wage.” 

Medical center officials have publicly acknowledged serious problems with the computerized payroll system, and have been working in recent weeks to correct the difficulties. 

A medical center answer to Leo’s complaint was filed on Thursday, but was not available for public viewing at presstime..