Local News

Jefferson County Commissioners Sandra Little Brown and David Carrington are on opposite
sides on the Cooper Green Mercy Hospital inpatient care issue.

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- The decision to close the inpatient unit at Cooper Green Mercy Hospital has created a rift among the Jefferson County Commission that may take some time to heal, some commissioners say.

The county commission has been a model for bipartisanship and harmony, but the committee vote last week to close the inpatient unit may have changed that.

"This was not done right, it was wrong," Commissioner Sandra Little Brown said on Friday. "There was a trust factor there -- it was violated. I thought we were doing a good job as a team."

Republican Commissioners David Carrington, Jimmie Stephens and Joe Knight voted to close the inpatient unit at the county-owned hospital for the poor. Democrat Commissioners Brown and George Bowman voted not to close. The commission will vote on the matter in a regular meeting on Tuesday.

Brown and Bowman said they were blindsided by the vote.

"You're not only talking about patient's lives but you're also talking about 700 jobs ... when you close down a hospital you also have to close down the emergency room," Bowman said. "You can't have an emergency room clinic to provide that kind of care without having an accompanying hospital for those who need to be admitted. Those are hospital regulations, not just Birmingham or Jefferson County. This is preposterous."

Bowman said last year he didn't trust the Republicans on the commission and cited the sale of the Jefferson Rehabilitation and Health Center as an example. "I am the appointing authority for the rehab facility, and the paperwork never touched me or anyone in my office," he wrote in a letter to The Birmingham News. "It was purposely routed around me. The commissioners involved never even mentioned the issue."

Brown and Carrington often keep one another informed on issues that come before the commission. Brown said she didn't hear from Carrington about Cooper Green. Carrington said commissioners knew where he stood on the hospital.

"I don't think Bowman nor Brown should be surprised that I had a great interest or felt like closing inpatient care was a model that should be seriously considered. ... I've consistently said this is a model that works."

Carrington said he doesn't see a split on the board.

"There's not a rift, in my opinion," Carrington said. "As far as Sandra and I are concerned, it's being handled very professionally ... we're just on opposite sides on this one. There is no reason to have a breakdown on the commission."

But Brown said: "I know I'm not in the majority, but the three Republicans came together and made a decision. To me that decision went against everything we had been trying to build."

Past commissions were known for forming three-member coalitions and ramming through legislation. In 2002, commissioners Larry Langford, Gary White and Sheila Smoot made up the majority. In 2006, Bettye Fine Collins, Smoot and Bowman formed an alliance. William Bell, now Birmingham mayor, also sided with the Collins majority during his brief stint on the commission.

The commission seated in 2010 -- Carrington, Brown, Bowman and Commissioners Jimmie Stephens and Joe Knight -- has largely been free of partisan bickering that plagued previous panels. Carrington and Brown came into office and quickly established a working relationship that transcended race, gender and politics.

Carrington was voted president and Brown president pro-tempore. They have sided together on many major issues, including the commission's 4-1 votes to file the largest government bankruptcy in U.S. history and selling the Jefferson Rehabilitation Health Center, known as the county nursing home.

Knight said Cooper Green Mercy Hospital is a delicate subject for many, but he gave the hospital time to get its financial house in order.

"This is a very controversial issue among the commission as everybody knows and it's a very emotional issue and there are some things people fall on the sword for," he said. "If I haven't felt like I did all I could to convince them that you have to fix it the other way then maybe I'd feel bad."

Stephens said the commission can work through any differences. "We agree to disagree," he said. "There will be another fight tomorrow. Each individual decision rests upon itself. There is no ill will and hard feelings among the commissioners."

Brown said all matters -- especially those on weighty issues -- should get input from all five commissioners.

"We went backwards, we have to rebuild that trust," Brown said. "I'm not saying that it can't happen but -- on critical issues such as life and death, to take a stand like that -- it's going to be real hard."

By Barnett Wright -- The Birmingham News
Published: Monday, August 13, 2012, 6:25 AM
Updated: Monday, August 13, 2012, 6:26 AM

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