Business / Economy

Hospital Hit With Voting Rights Lawsuit

Lawsuit claims the hospital practices “institutional racism” in picking board candidates

Hazel Hawkins Hospital is being accused in a lawsuit of not complying with the state Voting Rights Act in selecting its candidates for the board of directors.

On Wednesday, Sept. 24, a lawsuit was filed at the San Benito County courthouse claiming that the hospital’s “at-large” voting process – rather than district representation like the Board of Supervisors uses, for example — in picking its candidates for Board of Directors, discriminates against Latino voters, the majority of residents in the county. The lawsuit calls for creating five hospital districts.

There are three Hispanic plaintiffs in the lawsuit, and their attorneys have asked their identities be kept anonymous for now. The attorneys representing them are San Benito County's former District Attorney, John Sarsfield, and his partner, Marguerite Melo. Sarsfield and Melo now have their own private practice based in the Central Valley specializing in constitutional law.

In July, Sarsfield and Melo sent a letter to Hazel Hawkins CEO Ken Underwood, advising him of an impending lawsuit if the hospital didn’t change the process.

“In response, we received a letter from Underwood on July 25, indicating that the board would study the issue, and maybe, someday, change things if they felt like it,” the attorneys said in a phone interview.

Sarsfield and Melo said they sent another letter explaining that the lawsuit was real and they invited Underwood and the board’s representatives to meet with them to find a compromise. The hospital board’s attorneys, Ottone, Leach & Ray, responded that the board members had authorized the hiring of a demographer to help draw districts, but no action was taken at the board’s subsequent meeting to switch to district voting.

Plaintiff’s attorney Melo went to an in-person meeting at the hospital earlier this week to meet with the hospital's attorneys.

“It became clear that the only way to get them to comply with the law is by intervention through this lawsuit,” said Melo. "It appears that the board is trying to get an incumbent re-elected one last time before switching to district based elections."

Mary McCullough is the only hospital board incumbent running for re-election.

Hospital spokeswoman Frankie Gallagher said Thursday that Underwood has not had a chance to read the filed lawsuit yet, and therefore couldn’t comment. Salinas television station KSBW reported that a hospital press release said "the only explanation for the lawsuit is greed. This law firm, Melo and Sarsfield, wants to generate profits for itself in the form of attorney's feesfor bringing a case without any merit whatsoever."

The lawsuit asks for three “remedies:” 1) Immediately ending “at large” elections for the district, to include the upcoming November election, and switch to district elections, to be held concurrently with regularly scheduled County Board of Supervisor elections; 2) Immediately remove the hospital board members who were elected by “at-large” voting and call for a special election, by district, to temporarily replace them for the balance of their term with newly elected members, chosen by district elections; and 3) Reimburse the plaintiffs' for attorneys’ fees and costs.

Recently, the City of Palmdale was sued for the same alleged California Votings Right Act violation and it ended up paying  $5 million in plaintiff's attorneys’ fees when it lost. Other jurisdictions have also lost millions in similar suits, including those in Modesto, San Mateo and Santa Barbara.

“No municipality or special district has ever defeated a CVRA claim brought against them,” said Melo.



BenitoLink Staff