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Not-so-public meeting yields little new on Vero employee health clinic BY MARY BETH MCDONALD - COLUMNIST (Week of June 4, 2009)

A special call meeting by the Vero Beach City Council ostensibly to allow the first formal public discussion of the proposed health clinic for municipal employees turned into a lengthy filibuster by staff and consultants pushing the plan, and by the time Mayor Sabin Abell finally agreed to open the floor to written questions, a number of weary opponents long since had given up and left.

The three and-a-half hour June 1 meeting was dominated at the start with presentations by city Risk Manager Barbara Morey; Crowne Consulting CEO Ray Tomlinson, whose company would be paid to oversee the clinic; and Vero Beach health care consultant Kurt Gehring of the Gehring Group, who has been pushing both the idea of the clinic and Crowne.

Port St. Lucie Human Resources Director Tammy Williamson and City of Ocoee Human Resources Director Jim Carnicella, both of whom have established clinics run by Crowne, also spoke in favor of the health clinic, contending it would result in significant cost savings for the city.

While the meeting started at 9:30, input from the public was not sought until after noon, when Abell called for interested parties to write any questions they might have on comment cards. Only when Abell had difficulty reading the questions were members of the public actually offered an opportunity to speak.

Among those no longer present at that point were Hospital District Board Chairman Dr. Hugh McCrystal and Dr. Burton Lee, a member of the Hospital District Board. Both have voiced opposition to the clinic.

After the meeting several members of the public complained to Council members about the lack of public comment. Council member Kevin Sawnick said that since the public had to wait so long to speak to the issue, he would put the Clinic on the June 16th Agenda for the regular City Council meeting.

In the end, the council voted 5-to-0 to hold off on any further contract negotiations for the clinic ahead of a June 22 budget review meeting.

While most council members seemed disposed through their questioning to accept the strong recommendation of city staff to proceed with the clinic, Council member Debra Fromang appeared skeptical throughout the meeting, wondering if enough research and legwork had been done to fully vet the health clinic proposal.

She repeatedly voiced her view that the city should not get involved with a health clinic unless Indian River County joined in with Vero Beach in its operation. The County Commissioners last month considered a similar proposal, but voted instead to seek more information and to obtain proposals from the private sector.

Mayor Abell said he had invited the County Commissioners to attend the meeting so they could obtain all the relevant information. “We invited them to come here to get this kind of information, and so far, nobody has come,” Abell observed glumly. “I don’t want to wait 90 days to see what the county is going to do.”

The City of Vero Beach has been hard at work since last January trying to get somebody to partner with them on the clinic. In recent weeks, the Indian River County Board of Commissioners; the City of Sebastian and the Indian River School District have all shot down the idea of partnering with the City on the venture.