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Anger erupts at Clinicas meeting

March 29, 2002|By DARREN SIMON

Staff Writer

BRAWLEY — Clinicas De Salud Del Pueblo has an interim director — agency Business Manager Esperanza Sykora — at least until the end of today.

What happens beyond that for the nonprofit medical, dental and health agency that last year treated 42,000 patients around the Desert Southwest is a question that will be addressed Monday.

In a meeting Thursday in the agency's headquarters here, tempers flared amid allegations some Clinicas board members abused their authority and that threats were made against at least one agency employee.


Such allegations and the debate over leadership have come as Clinicas faces being declared in default on a loan agreement with the state.

The financial issue took a back seat Thursday as growing animosity on the board led five members — board president Daniel Vernon and Miguel Miranda, Rodolfo Piñon, Alma Estrada and Maria Lizaola — to resign.

The nine board members who remained named Sykora as interim director. Sykora did not agree to remain on as interim director beyond today unless she has the support of the agency's clinic managers. Sykora called for a management meeting Monday and said she would decide then whether to continue as interim director.

Her appointment came at the end of a more than five-hour meeting, with most of that time awash in controversy as employees called for the entire board to resign.

The catalyst for the disorder Thursday was the decision by an ad-hoc committee of the board to select local consultant George Thomas as interim director.

Louis Lerma, Clinicas director for 19 years, resigned in February, and today was to be his last day. Lerma was asked to resign by some on the board but said the final decision was his own.

Thomas began as interim director Monday, even as questions arose over the process by which he was selected.

Employees, some board members and Lerma said the ad-hoc committee did not have the authority to hire Thomas and the decision should have been left to the full board.

On Thursday it was determined that Thomas' hiring was invalid, but not before an allegation arose that he had sent a threatening letter to Brawley clinic Manager Vivian Perez.

El Centro area attorney Frank Oswalt said he was at the meeting to represent Perez, who Thursday received a letter from Thomas that reportedly questioned her about the effort to obtain signatures for a a vote of no confidence against the board.

Some 100 employees signed the petition declaring they had no confidence in the board, it was stated during the meeting.

Oswalt said of Perez, who was a candidate for the interim director position along with Thomas, "She will not sit still through implied threats."

He told at least some of the board members to look seriously into their "own souls" to see if it is "appropriate for you to continue to serve on this board." He warned the board members they could be susceptible to legal actions for their actions.

Thomas said there was no threat of retribution in the letter he sent to Perez, adding he sent the letter at the request of some board members.

Thomas added the board members simply wanted answers to their concerns about the process of obtaining signatures and needed those answers before the start of the board meeting.

Thomas then told the board, "I have enjoyed working with you. I would be happy to serve you."

However, he said he would only serve if he had complete support. Thomas then left the meeting, stating he could be contacted if the board decided it wanted his services.

There was another allegation brought forward by Piñon against board member Isidoro Romero, president of the committee that selected Thomas. Piñon alleged on Feb. 21, Romero approached him, stating that Thomas would serve as interim director.

Lerma did not resign until Feb. 28. The ad-hoc committee was formed March 13 and reportedly hired Thomas on March 18.

Romero denied any wrongdoing.

After Thomas left the room, the 13 board members— at that point only Vernon had resigned — discussed the idea of asking Lerma to stay on beyond Friday.

Lerma said he would be willing to remain as director for up to 45 days to help in the transition while the board seeks a permanent director.

Miranda called for a motion to that effect, but the motion was killed by a majority vote. Lerma then left the meeting and it was unclear whether he would return to work today.

Miranda then resigned from the board and Piñon, Estrada and Lizaola quickly followed.

Their resignations were met with applause from employees who then chastised the remaining board members for not doing so as well.

Employees who crowded into the small board chambers told the board members they were not thinking in the best interest of the community. Board members said they cared as much about the community as the employees.

As employees continued to shower the board with angry comments, there was a call to end the meeting.

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