Bill Boyarsky
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Union clout, King hospital and the 2nd district

The unspoken question in the supervisorial election between Bernard Parks and Mark Ridley-Thomas is how much influence the winning candidate will allow the unions in negotiating the reopening of Martin Luther King Jr. -Harbor Medical Center, which once served thousands of poor people.

Getting King functioning again is the most important issue in the race for the 2nd Supervisorial District seat. The hospital in South Los Angeles County has been closed for 10 months after it failed federal inspections. It’s criminal that it remains closed, but that’s what happens in the do-nothing behemoth, Los Angeles County government.

The unions representing county workers, including those from the shuttered hospital, are supporting Ridley -Thomas. They have donated at least $4 million to an independent expenditure committee campaigning for him. A total of $980,000 of it came in during the last two weeks of the primary campaign, which ended with Ridley-Thomas finishing ahead of Parks but short the majority needed for victory. The runoff will be held in November, on the same day as the presidential election.

Both have pledged to restore the hospital. But no matter who wins, the unions will be the real power in shaping the contracts and civil service rules that will govern the nurses and other medical personnel at a reopened King and the other county hospitals.

Union reps, county bureaucrats and supervisors and their aides will resolve these matters in secret, as is the custom for big issues in the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, even though they involve major questions of public policy. In this instance, the county imposes secrecy because of its lawyers’ broad interpretation of an exemption from the state open meeting law for anything dealing with personnel. The way the county sees it, that could be most anything.

Nobody wants to talk much about this aspect of the King issue, not even someone unconnected to the county, like Robert K. Ross, president and chief executive of the California Endowment, a private foundation interested in improving access to health care.

Last month, Garrett Therolf reported in the Los Angeles Times that when Ross contacted county officials to help find an institution to take over King, his letter “did not address another issue that many said was a stumbling block [to opening King]: whether an operator would be required to employ members of the county’s public employee unions and be bound by county personnel rules that make it difficult to discipline or transfer workers who harm patients.”

Of course the unions will insist on such a requirement, and make their feelings known in the closed-door meetings with supervisors, supervisorial aides and bureaucrats.

Ridley-Thomas and Parks proposed solutions that shed no light on how they will handle the union issue. Parks wants King and the other hospitals run by a new authority “sufficiently insulated from political vagaries.” Ridley-Thomas wants the hospital to be run by “an administrator and governance structure that operates outside L.A. County’s political authority and its health services bureaucracy.”
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who is not up for re-election, said in a Times op-ed piece that he wants the hospital turned over to the University of California, which would be “unencumbered by the county’s human resources and hiring rules.” He did not address the union issue.

In bringing up the unions and civil service rules in his story, Times reporter Therolf raised an important question. It deserves to be answered in the campaign, especially by Ridley-Thomas, the recipient of union financial support.

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