El Camino Healthcare District's board of directors voted 3-1 this month to launch an investigation into a complaint that board member Julia Miller had been unprofessional and disrespectful to hospital staff.
But the details of the complaint have been kept hidden from the public and board members alike, raising questions about political motivations behind the investigation. Miller is up for re-election this year and plans to run in a contested race for the board this November.
Miller, meanwhile, said she was elbowed out of the July 15 discussion to launch an investigative committee, and said she doesn't know any more than the general public about the allegations.
Board chair Gary Kalbach proposed the idea of investigating Miller after receiving one or more complaints from hospital staff, alluding specifically to disrespectful behavior at a board meeting in June. Who made the complaint, and the specific details of the complaint, had not been revealed even to other board members at the July 15 meeting.
When asked for a copy of the complaint, a hospital spokesman said that Kalbach received a "verbal" complaint with no paper trail.
Kalbach said he believes Miller has a history of misconduct on the board, with the June meeting being only the latest example of her inappropriate behavior towards staff. He said he was encouraged to sweep the problem under the rug, but said the board must hold Miller accountable.
"If we cannot examine or independent or collective actions, we don't belong on this board," Kalbach said.
Board member John Zoglin, who supported the investigation, said the board needs to hold its own members accountable and prevent any abuse of power over its employees. Like Kalbach, he suggested that the problem was a repeat offense and that apologies don't absolve her of the misconduct.
"A pattern of mistreating employees and apologizing -- that's, I think, analogous to other kinds of abuse," Zoglin said. "It doesn't really provide any safety for the people on the receiving end of that."
Board member Peter Fung, who questioned why the topic was even being discussed, said he was "very uncomfortable" voting for an investigation based on a complaint nobody has even seen. Time and effort will need to be rerouted into an investigation at a time when the hospital is dealing with the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home public health orders, he said, and it smacks of political interference.
Adding to the strange nature of the July 15 discussion, the investigation was formally opposed by one of Santa Clara County's largest union leaders. Ben Field, then the executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council, told board members in a letter that the misconduct allegations "appear to be the result of a longstanding grudge," timed to cause political damage to Miller's re-election campaign.
"The nature and timing of the complaint reflects badly on the hospital and its governance, suggesting that the district board is willing to use its powers to serve a political agenda," Field said in the letter. "The ad hoc committee seems designed to create an election issue. This strategy is not only an unethical intrusion into electoral politics, but it is likely to backfire on the hospital by spotlighting the dysfunction of your board."
It's unclear what transpired at the June 16 board meeting that triggered the investigation into Miller's actions. The meeting focused largely on the district's community benefit grants, which allocates millions of taxpayer dollars to nonprofits and schools running health care programs and services.
During the meeting, Miller pushed back against some staff recommendations, insisting that it would be a good investment to give $25,000 to the Sunnyvale Police and Fire Foundation for mental health support and financial assistance. Staff had recommended the program not be funded.
Miller also questioned increasing funding to the RoadRunners program, which provides free hospital transportation to patients incapable of driving to and from the hospital. She worried that current ridership numbers may not warrant the increased costs.
Board member George Ting supported the investigation, but said the interactions at the June 16 meeting didn't strike him as a serious offense.
"I didn't perceive the insult as others did," Ting said. "It wasn't as obvious to me."
When asked about the investigation, Miller said she believes the allegations and newly launched committee are related to her bid for re-election, and that the process -- voting to investigate without seeing the complaint and forcing her to recuse herself from the discussion -- was both outside of protocol and outside of authority. She said Kalbach has declined to meet with her and talk about the complaint.
"He won't meet with me or talk to me about what happened," Miller said.
On a 3-1 vote with Fung dissenting, the board agreed to launch an ad hoc committee to dig into the complaint and make a determination. The investigation is being conducted by two board members in meetings that are not public, and the verdict will be presented within 45 to 60 days of the start of the investigation, likely around the time ballots will be mailed to voters.
There isn't too much the board can do to reprimand Miller in the event that the majority finds she acted inappropriately. The board can choose to censure a colleague as a sort of official condemnation, but cannot oust them from the board or compel any corrective actions.
Notable examples include the Mountain View Whisman School District board vote to censure trustee Steve Nelson in 2013 and, more recently, a split vote by the Santa Clara County school board to censure Joseph Di Salvo this month over allegations of gender bias and discrimination.