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  • El Centro City Council hears public on abortion

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    March 04, 2015

    In what appeared to number at least 2,000 people spilling out of El Centro City Council chambers, into the courtyard and streets surrounding City Hall on Tuesday night, impassioned pleas from religious leaders and members of the community to not allow abortions in Imperial County mixed with sometimes angry rebukes of the City Council and staff.

    Scores of Imperial Valley residents poured into City Hall via farm labor buses while others sang in groups and prayed.

    All were there to lend support to a variety of religious leaders sitting before the council to have their collective concerns heard over an agreement between Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest and El Centro Regional Medical Center that would clear the way for abortions services to occur at Planned Parenthood’s expanded clinic under construction on Fourth Street.

    The transfer agreement issue was not on Tuesday’s agenda, yet Mayor Efrain Silva addressed the assembly to say the community would get a chance to be heard.

    At the center of the issue, according to those who spoke in public comment, were the moral objection to abortion, the lack of transparency around the process to approve a state-mandated transfer agreement necessary to perform abortions in the Valley and the responsibility of the City Council itself to step in and wrest the transfer agreement decision from the hospital board.

    “You were elected to run this hospital, now quit acting like cowards and do the job you were elected to do,” said Heber resident Brenda Scaroni, her voice rising and the crowd indoors and outside listening over a speaker system cheering and clapping.

    “Now,” Scaroni continued, “we expect you to withdraw this transfer and we expect you to do it at the next scheduled meeting.”

    At the beginning of the public comment portion of the meeting, City Attorney Kris Becker addressed the crowd on the history of how in 1986 the council gave up its governance of the city-owned hospital to an appointed board of trustees, adding that city ordinances do not allow for the annulment of actions by hospital staff.

    Becker then announced that City Council, emerging from closed session several minutes before the meeting started, voted to hire an independent legal counsel to review its options. Silva and council members Jason Jackson, Cheryl Viegas Walker and Alex Cardenas voted yes, while councilwoman Sedalia Sanders abstained.

    It wasn’t clear whether that was fully understood by those in attendance as the announcement and a subsequent explanation by Walker occurred very quickly.

    Christ Community Church pastors Walter Colace and Chris Nunn fired up the crowd, speaking directly to a council that for the most part stared on stoically, betraying little emotion.

    “We, too, are watching you. We’re watching to see how you act. We’re watching to see how you respond, and we are not an ignorant community,” Nunn said. “We will see how you vote and how you act and what your movements are, and we will hold you accountable the only place we can, at the ballot box.”

    Colace accused the council of betrayal in allowing the transfer agreement to move forward: “This was not an act of advancement of our community; it was an act of betrayal.”

    He then accused Sanders directly of betraying Christ. Admonished for a personal attack by the mayor, Colace said it’s not personal, as she is the liason between the hospital and the city and is among the voting members of the hospital board.

    Many in the crowd were on hand to hear attorney David Gibbs, a constitutional lawyer offering his services to the community pro bono through the faith-based Alliance Defending Freedom. Gibbs, in the Valley on behalf of the newly formed Imperial Valley Coalition for Life, offered the council alternatives in preventing the transfer agreement.

    Gibbs began to hit the council hard over abdicating its role amid violations of the Brown Act, California’s open meetings law, and what he called the “fraudulent” behavior of Becker and hospital attorney Elizabeth Balfour.

    That is when the exchange got testy between Viegas Walker and Gibbs, both of whom squabbled over the tenets of the Brown Act, with Gibbs claiming that taking the discussion of the transfer agreement into closed session under the protection of anticipated litigation was a ruse considering no litigation had officially been threatened. To which Walker said, the discussion did fall under the accurate interpretation of the law.

    An attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association told the Imperial Valley Press on Monday that only when litigation is officially threatened are there instances when the body can announce what they are going to discuss in closed session. If not official, no such announcement is required, the CNPA attorney said.

    While the religious community has dominated the public discourse over abortion and the transfer agreement, Planned Parenthood officials have remained largely silent.

    However, Planned Parenthood of the Pacific Southwest President and Chief Executive Officer Darrah Johnson spoke with the Imperial Valley Press on Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before the council meeting.

    “We don’t intend to be in a public debate about social issues like abortion; we’re in the position to take care of women,” Johnson said about the agency’s absence at Tuesday’s council meeting and other public meetings. “Our allegiance is to the women and men and families to whom we are going to be providing health services."

    During Gibbs and Colace’s public comments each referred to the legality of abortion in Mexicali as being a prime factor in bringing abortion services to the Valley.

    Johnson addressed the issue directly: “No, we did not take into consideration the cross-border implications. Our job is to serve the residents of the Imperial Valley,” she said, adding that teen pregnancy rates in Imperial County are 70 percent higher than the state average.

    She said abortion is a small but important part of what Planned Parenthood does.

    While the issue of threatened litigation weighed heavy on the discussions Tuesday night, Johnson was asked whether Planned Parenthood ever threatened to sue the hospital if the agreement wasn’t signed.

    “It’s not a yes-or-no question for me,” she said. Planned Parenthood “encouraged” the hospital and board to “follow the law,” Johnson said.

    California Health and Safety codes require a transfer agreement in place between Planned Parenthood and hospitals as a safety measure before abortion procedures can occur at Planned Parenthood clinics. The agreement has already been signed by El Centro Regional Chief Executive Officer Tomas Virgen and Planned Parenthood, it was confirmed earlier Tuesday.

    More than a month ago the transfer agreement appeared on a hospital board agenda as an information-only item. The board pulled the item for discussion, but then tabled it asking for further information. Last week, under legal advisement from hospital counsel, some form of the discussion was pulled into closed session under the heading of anticipated litigation.

    Hospital officials have said the board doesn’t have to approve transfer agreements since they are an administrative procedure. It hasn’t been made clear why an administrative procedure that hospital officials have handled through management before was brought to the hospital board in the first place.

    Out of closed session last week, it was reported that the execution of the agreement was already underway by hospital administration, despite a lack of direction from the hospital board.

    Because the issue was in closed session, it’s not clear what that direction was, but it was reported as the board not reaching consensus on legal recommendations.

    Trustees Oliver Alvarado, Dr. Charles Humphrey and Sanders accepted the legal advice. Trustees Amanda Brooke, Jon Edney and Joe Picazo Jr. declined. Board President Alejandro Calderon gave no position, and reportedly resigned from the board the next day. Edney also resigned that day.

    Moving forward, religious leaders who spoke Tuesday said they will return to council chambers over and over until the issue is resolved.

    Nunn said the signed transfer agreement comes with a 30-day clause to end the agreement, and those he represents won’t let the council forget.

    “Every time you’re out to dinner and shopping in the grocery stores, you have to look every one of us in the eyes and explain to us why you didn’t listen to the heart of your community,” he said.

    RICHARD MONTENEGRO BROWN , Local Content Editor
    (760) 337-3400