El Camino Healthcare District's board of directors took no action last week following an investigation into complaints that board member Julia Miller was unprofessional and disrespectful to hospital staff.
The decision to end the investigation without taking punitive action against Miller or clearing her of wrongdoing comes amid complaints that the entire process was shrouded in secrecy and came off as a politically motivated witch hunt. Miller is seeking reelection this November in a contested race for the board.
Health care district board Chair Gary Kalbach proposed investigating Miller on July 15, stating that he had received one or more complaints that Miller had acted inappropriately toward staff at a June board meeting. He suggested that this was not an isolated incident, and that Miller had a history of misconduct.
No details beyond that have been made public, including the specific nature of the allegations or who complained. When asked for a copy of the complaint, hospital officials said the allegations against Miller were made verbally. The investigation was carried out by Kalbach and board member George Ting, who submitted a three-paragraph report that does not shed any light on the allegations.
At the Sept. 10 board meeting, Kalbach recommended that the board not take any action, and that the committee and Miller had essentially made a settlement agreement. Miller agreed to drop her oversight role as a liaison to the district's Community Benefit Advisory Council -- tasked with distributing $7.3 million in taxpayer money to health care programs -- in order to "resolve the matter." In reaching the agreement, Miller said she still objects to the investigation and denies any wrongdoing.
Speakers criticized the way the investigation was carried out and the lack of transparency, decrying the board's actions as a political hit job. Gary Kremen, a Los Altos Hills resident and board member of the Santa Clara Valley Water District, called the investigation "purely political" and a witch hunt that amounts to poor governance. He criticized the board's opaque decisions to conduct and conclude the investigation out of the public eye.
"I believe the public is not served by your actions of holding back what you're going to do, not releasing reports. You can do much better," Kremen said.
Kremen also slammed Kalbach for suggesting that the board did not have to take public comments on the investigation because there was no motion made by any board members. According to the Brown Act, local agencies must provide members of the public the opportunity to address their governing body "on any item of interest to the public" during meetings.
Jean Cohen, the interim director of the South Bay Labor Council, said that she is confident in Miller's leadership, and that it's "unfortunate" that taxpayer dollars are being used for political purposes. Kalbach said the board hired an outside attorney to facilitate the investigation.
Board member Peter Fung, a critic of the investigation, said the timing of the investigation was inappropriate given the upcoming election, and that even he -- a board member -- is still in the dark on most of the details. He said he still doesn't know what Miller did that allegedly amounted to inappropriate or abusive behavior toward staff.
"Are we allowed to know who the complainants are?" Fung asked. "It remains a mystery to all of us -- what actually happened that gave rise to all those complaints."
Kalbach defended his decision, arguing that sweeping the allegations under the rug would have been negligent and even less transparent. Kalbach is not running for reelection this year, which he said absolves him from any political gains he could get from the investigation.
"The general public feels like this board has had way too little transparency," he said. "And I know director Miller has been pushing towards that, pushing towards full transparency."
Kalbach said he adhered to board policies throughout the process, which calls for misconduct complaints to be investigated by two board members for possible action. Who was interviewed during the investigation will not be disclosed, he said, citing attorney-client privilege.
"I sleep at night very well believing that we executed on the policy perfectly," Kalbach said.
Miller was mostly silent during the Sept. 10 meeting, only to say that she was happy for the closure. Ting said he was glad the investigation will close out without taking any action, as strange as that may seem to the public.
"I think this outcome, which can only sound bizarre -- that we make no recommendations -- is a good outcome from my point of view," Ting said.