Massena hospital officials dispute supervisor’s claim that MMH is in financial jeopardy
Friday, January 11, 2019 - 5:20 pm

By ANDY GARDNER
North Country Now

MASSENA -- The chairperson of the Massena Memorial Hospital Board of Managers says she will not leave her position until she is legally required to do so, as she is facing a challenge to her leadership from the town supervisor.

Meanwhile, Massena Memorial officials contest the supervisor’s contention that the hospital is in dire financial straits, a reason the top town lawmaker cited as his reason for wanting to remove the MMH board chair.

Susan Bellor, MMH board chair, MMH trustee Tina Buckley and Massena Memorial Hospital CEO Charles Gijanto, who is also CEO of CHMC in Ogdensburg, spoke with North Country This Week on Jan. 9. Bellor and Buckley are the MMH board’s executive committee.

On Jan. 4, Town Supervisor Steve O’Shaughnessy announced he was firing MMH board chair Sue Bellor, who assumed the role Jan. 1.

Bellor says the town supervisor has unfairly maligned her in his attempts to kick her off the board.

“I am tired of being maligned,” Bellor said in a Jan. 9 interview with North Country This Week.

During the interview, Bellor read from a written statement saying she intends to remain in her position until she is legally removed. She is entitled to a hearing before any termination is final and said she will invoke that right.

“I just want to say no matter what happens to me, I would like to thank all the employees, the staff, the providers, the volunteers, and the management at Massena Memorial Hospital to know that I feel deeply for them and appreciate their dedicated quality work they provide to our patients,” Bellor said.

“I am staying until my fate is determined on this board of managers as proposed by the Massena Town Council, because I want MMH to remain a full service hospital to the Massena community.”

O’Shaughnessy, who spoke with North Country Now on Jan. 7, did not return multiple phone calls and emails seeking comment on the Jan. 9 interview with Bellor, Buckley and Gijanto.

MMH Says Finances Stable

O’Shaughnessy in his Jan. 4 letter said he is removing Bellor from the board due to poor financial performance at MMH.

“The reason for your removal is the failure to improve the financial condition of Massena Memorial Hospital and the failure to install a management team capable of leading MMH without exposing the taxpayers of the Town of Massena to inordinate financial risk. Specifically, you have failed to exercise adequate control of the general superintendence and management of Massena Memorial and of the matters relating to the government, discipline, contracts and fiscal concerns thereof. Further, you have failed to maintain an effective inspection of said hospital and keep yourself informed of the affairs and management thereof,” the supervisor wrote.

O’Shaughnessy said he sought legal advice from the town’s attorney, Eric Gustafson, before deciding to fire Bellor.

“It’s in the municipal law, and it’s also in the bylaws, specific procedure for removal. I didn’t do it lightly or on a whim, and I had legal advice as well as support from the town board,” the supervisor said.

However, MMH officials say the hospital is financially solvent and is not in danger of running out of money or closing down.

“We are not in imminent danger of closing for any reason, particularly for running out of cash. I have expressed to Steve and the town board. I met with the town board in December. We are not running out of cash. We are not wealthy, we are not flush, but we are not running out of cash,” MMH CEO Charles Gijanto said.

A Jan. 7 prepared statement from MMH says their finances include “total assets $36.7 million, current liabilities $14.7 million and long-term liabilities of $11 million, leaving a net worth of $11 million. The hospital has $3.2 million or 20 days cash on hand and collects $3.8 to $4.5 million monthly from patient/insurance reimbursements.”

MMH officials during the Jan. 9 interview said the recent changes in MMH leadership have cost the hospital about $500,000 in interim CEO salaries and other expenses. In June, MMH CEO Robert Wolleben resigned and was replaced by a two-month interim executive, who was then replaced by Gijanto.

Bellor said she believes O’Shaughnessy asked Wolleben to resign and he did so to save the board from dealing with what could have been a messy affair.

“It looked like Bob was asked to resign and Bob agreed to it to save us board members,” she said.

MMH trustee Paul Morrow in December said Wolleben was “forced out” by the Town Council.

“They [Town Council] wanted to get rid of Bob … they didn’t like the direction he was going either,” Morrow said Dec. 19. “Bob knew what was in the wind, so he resigned.”

In addition to the CEO fees, the hospital has spent $1.7 million -- and counting -- on the affiliation and asset transfer process, which includes legal and consulting fees, according to Bellor.

Cease and Desist

The same day O’Shaughnessy announced his decision, an attorney representing MMH sent a cease-and-desist letter to the supervisor, and on Jan. 7, MMH released their statement that included a portion that says they still consider Bellor to be the board chair.

“Ms. Bellar [sic] intends to continue her dedicated quality service to the Board,” attorney Robert M. Germain wrote in a Jan. 4 letter.

Just before Bellor was fired, she said she received an email from O’Shaughnessy saying he wanted to meet with her, or if she couldn’t meet him, he would come to her home.

She said the hospital bylaws require her as chair to hold all meetings at MMH, so she, MMH trustee Tina Buckley and the supervisor met in the board room. She said he gave her the dismissal letter and told Buckley to “take her name badge, credentials and computer access immediately,” adding that she was only given a name badge.

Bellor said the same email that preceded her termination also went to several other board members.

Germain in his Jan. 4 letter calls the supervisor’s attempt to remove Bellor as “procedurally defective” and says MMH and the Board of Managers consider the firing “null and void.”

“On or about December 24th, 2018 we placed you on written notice that New York General Municipal Law Section 127(3) clearly states a manager may ‘be removed from office at any time by the appointing authority after having received notice in writing of the cause of the proposed removal and after an opportunity to be heard thereon.’ The law clearly requires a hearing before an independent hearing examiner upon notice prior to any removal becoming effective,” Germain wrote.

In a letter dated Dec. 24, Germain told O’Shaughnessy that removal for any reason other than misconduct would “have no legal basis.”

“Please consider this letter formal written notice that termination or removal of a member of the Board of Managers without proper cause (misconduct) would have no legal basis or effect and will be legally challenged immediately,” Germain wrote.

Meeting ‘Boycotted’?

O’Shaughnessy on Jan. 7 said he felt the MMH board “boycotted” and didn’t show up to a joint meeting of the town and hospital boards that he called for on Jan. 3. He said the only MMH board members who showed up were Maresca, Real “Frenchie” Coupal, Bedros Bakirtzian and Dawn Hewlett.

Bellor in her Jan. 9 interview said that is not accurate. She said the board was unable to muster on short notice that close to a holiday, as the supervisor contacted the board just before the new year.

“To pull the board together and get a quorum is impossible,” Gijanto said.

“I just want people to know that we invited them to our board meeting on Jan. 21, for the hour at the beginning,” Bellor said Jan. 9.

However, in a letter Bellor wrote to the Town Council dated Dec. 31, she says it wouldn’t be possible to get the board there on short notice that close to the holiday. She suggests having the discussion during the planned Jan. 21 Board of Managers meeting. O’Shaughnessy had said the discussion would involve contract negotiations tied in with the privatization and affiliation process, which would make it appropriate for executive session at either time.

“It is not apparently feasible to meet this week with availability and non-availability of board of managers with such short notice and/or still on holiday,” Bellor wrote Dec. 31. “Since this is in the best interest of our community hospital and our Massena community, I would like to invite all of you to meet with us on the date of our regularly scheduled board meeting on January 21st. We are happy to host the town board, in a round table discussion for a truly honest and rational discussion the hour before the regular meeting. I can then put this as an agenda item for the regular meeting that night to show that we are working together in harmony for the betterment of our hospital and our community. If we need to add a special meeting for further discussion, we can also do that with all members present.”

‘Abuse of Power’ Charges

In a lengthy statement released on Jan. 7, MMH accuses the supervisor of an “abuse of power” in removing Bellor and allegedly threatening board members who he sees as not going along with his wishes. The entire statement can be read at https://bit.ly/2QCz2wK. At the Dec. 17 MMH board meeting, hospital trustees Paul Morrow and Coupal each said that O’Shaughnessy had called most of the members and said he would remove them if they didn’t go along with his choice of an affiliate.

Bellor on Jan. 9 said they weren’t the only two MMH trustees who the supervisor contacted and threatened.

“They started getting phone calls, board members, not just [Morrow and Coupal]. There were others that received phone calls to ether support him and his decision to go with CPH or remove themselves from the board,” Bellor said.

O’Shaughnessy has previously denied accusations of making threats, and he couldn’t be reached for comment on the new allegation.

In a Jan. 4 phone interview, O’Shaughnessy wouldn’t say why he decided to fire Bellor just four days into her term as MMH board chair, and said the hospital “should be embarrassed to be trying to play this out in the press.”

“We’ve asked multiple times to meet with them in a quiet setting in an executive board session so we can move ahead. This bashing, trying to slam the supervisor and town board … in public is not truthful,” he said.

When asked specifically what hospital officials said that isn’t true, he wouldn’t comment.

“That speaks to my first sentence that I don’t think it should be done in the papers,” he said.

MMH’s Jan. 7 statement accuses O’Shaughnessy and the town board of having “private discussions” with SLHS.

“Additionally, it has been brought to the hospital board’s attention, that the Town Supervisor and Council have been in private discussions with representatives of St. Lawrence Health Systems. These discussions have not been shared with the hospital’s board members at large to date,” the hospital’s statement reads.

O’Shaughnessy would not comment on the allegation beyond saying “they should be embarrassed that they should be bringing this stuff up.”