The Heffernan Memorial Healthcare District board violated state open meetings laws when it denied a request for funding from the Calexico Wellness Center,
a center executive alleges.
Calexico Wellness is located at 420 Heffernan Ave. It opened June 4.
Blanca Morales, center chief executive officer, insists her grant request was originally included on an open-session agenda for a Sept. 18 meeting of the district board published online but the item was removed a day later.
The matter was instead discussed in closed session, where there was a 3-1 vote with one abstention to deny the grant, according to Heffernan counsel Eduardo Rivera.
Morales disclosed the allegations in a recent e-mail and then spoke to this newspaper by phone on Oct. 26. She insisted her clinic was treated unfairly by the Heffernan board and its newly hired manager, Tomas Virgen.
"They find every little excuse to deny us," said Morales. "We actually requested six smaller grants and they lumped it into one larger one. Hector Martinez (Heffernan board president) had questions about our financial numbers but we made adjustments and were supposed to meet under open session."
Morales forwarded to this newspaper an e-mail Virgen sent to her explaining the process of why the closed session was necessary.
In the mid-October e-mail Virgen informed Morales her proposal was on the closed session agenda. It was listed as discussion and/or action on approving the Calexico Wellness Center proposal for the total amount of $97,813 but, "the item was discussed (in closed session) under the trade secrets exception to the open meeting law."
The day of the meeting Morales said Martinez sent her a text message that her item was removed from the open-session agenda.
Morales said when she asked Martinez why the item was removed he replied, "I believe our manager wants all grant proposals to be held off until he meets with the board on Saturday (Sept. 22)."
Morales further contends the trade-secrets exception applies only to matters of employment or hospital mergers. After receiving Virgen's response, Morales then sent a reply to him and attached a demand, "... to void the board action of Sept. 18, 2018."
Virgen had 15 days to reply, according to the Brown Act state open meetings law, Morales maintained. She said she has not heard from Virgen but noted Rivera had been contacted by Virgen.
Virgen did not respond to several e-mails and voicemails seeking comment.
However, in an Oct. 30 e-mail response to an inquiry from this newspaper about the matter Rivera stated, “The trade secret exception applied to this new program
being considered by the District with a private business. The matter was on the agenda for discussion and or action. No one from Morales company appeared at the hearing. The grant guidelines are irrelevant to this issue. The matter will be presented to the Board for further discussion and action.”
Morales said she has complained to Heffernan’s oversight agency, the Imperial Local Agency Formation Commission.
"I have gone to LAFCO more than once and they've not been very helpful," said Morales.
In her written reply to Virgen, Morales recounted the above allegations. She further contended the trade-secret exception was invoked in order to violate the Brown Act in this case and cause an illegal vote in closed session.
Morales added that grant guidelines provided to the public do not state that applying for a grant with Heffernan is regarded as a trade secret and the district board violated grant guidelines by keeping board decisions under secret meeting exceptions.
She also said Heffernan’s actions were not transparent, nor ensured taxpayers can comprehend the procedures to follow legally available funding opportunities with the district.
Morales also pointed out Virgen stated in his response of Oct. 14, "The discussion of the board on this item in closed session is not disclose-able."
She said she has also copied her response to Virgen to include LAFCO, its executive officer Jurg Heuberger, Imperial County District Attorney Gilbert Otero, Rivera, county Supervisor John Renison and the Calexico City Council.
The Heffernan board previously denied a $371,000 funding request from Calexico Wellness in June. A company official said that was about 70 percent of its planned operating expenses for its first year.
However, Heffernan has been under close scrutiny from oversight agency LAFCO, which has directed the agency to have a more thorough processes for funding requests.