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Court fight over Vidant board begins


By Ginger Livingston
The Daily Reflector

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

A judge could rule today on a request to halt an effort to reorganize the governing board of Vidant Medical Center after hearing a request for a temporary restraining order in state superior court.

Lawyers for Vidant and Pitt County argued against the request brought by the UNC System and East Carolina University in Orange County on Wednesday. If granted, the restraining order would be a first step in the UNC-ECU effort to reverse a new process for appointing members to the hospital’s board of trustees.

UNC system interim President Bill Roper said Wednesday that Judge Allen Baddour told the court he would make a ruling “on his schedule.” If the order is granted, UNC lawyers would make a case for a preliminary injunction and ultimately a permanent injunction, according to a complaint filed with the court on Monday.

If the injunction is not ultimately granted, UNC’s complaint said, the system will sue the county and Vidant for damages and costs related to construction of a new teaching hospital for the Brody School of Medicine.

“I am not going to speculate, but my hope is to get to a good place there,” Harry Smith, UNC Board of Governor’s chairman said after Wednesday’s regular meeting of the board. “At the same we have an obligation to protect the Brody School of Medicine and state assets congruently.”

The Pitt County Board of Commissioners on April 22 approved a series of amendments to the hospital’s articles of incorporation that stripped Board of Governors’ authority to nominate members to Vidant’s the governing board — a duty the governors shared since the mid-1970s when the hospital, then owned by the county, entered an agreement to become the medical school’s teaching facility.

Pitt County officials on Tuesday issued a statement that said the county values the longstanding affiliation between the Vidant and the medical school. “The county’s consent to the amendment to Vidant’s governance was intended to strengthen this relationship and assure local governance over health care in eastern North Carolina. We look forward to a positive result that is beneficial for all Pitt County residents.”

The commissioners took up the issue based on a verbal request Waldrum made to county board Chairwoman Beth Ward, county officials said. The amendments were then provided to the county by Vidant’s attorney Mary Beth Johnston. The commissioners did not discuss the changes publicly as group at any point.

Reached by telephone last week, prior to Monday’s court filing, Commissioners Tom Coulson, Melvin McLawhorn and Mary Perkins-Williams confirmed the amendments were discussed during a closed session at a meeting prior to the April 22 vote.

The Daily Reflector attempted to ask each commissioner on the nine-member board why they voted to make the changes but was only able to speak briefly with Coulson, McLawhorn and Perkins-Williams.

“My personal opinion is the Board of Governors lost my confidence,” Coulson said. “They have become too political, and I don’t think they were operating in the best interest of the area. That’s just me, I can’t speak for the others.”

Perkins-Williams said she was not familiar with issues involved in the changes so she followed lead of senior members on the board. McLawhorn said there was credence to the argument that the appointment process needed to be more localized and becomes more political “when it gets outside this arena.”

Coulson said he thought the Board of Commissioners properly handled the request.

“It came up, it was a concern, various people made certain arguments, we collectively agreed with those arguments and we decided to go ahead and take action,” he said.

Ward declined to address the issue when asked before a board meeting on Monday. County Manager Scott Elliott said officials were limited in what they could say because of the lawsuit.

A statement from Vidant Health officials on Wednesday said the decision to make changes was done through an appropriate, thoughtful and board-driven process, approved unanimously by county commissioners and the Vidant Health and medical center boards, which includes members appointed by the UNC Board of Governors.

“The decision by the boards also strengthened our relationship with East Carolina University by requiring two members be ECU leaders,” that statement said. “This was not the case previously. This demonstrates Vidant’s commitment to continuing and enhancing our strong partnership with ECU. We will always stand up and do what is right for eastern North Carolina. Ensuring we always have members on the board that understand and care deeply about the communities we are proud to serve is important and the right thing to do.”

Bobby Burns contributed to this report. Contact Ginger Livingston at glivingston@reflector.com or 252-329-9570.