Hospital At Last Resigned To Resident Vote On Sale Of Parkland

Pursuant to direction yet to be given by San Antonio Regional Hospital’s board of directors, the corporate leadership of the medical facility will likely follow through on the effort begun in 2018 to appropriate 12 percent of Upland’s Memorial Park that is adjacent to its campus for use as a parking lot to accommodate its burgeoning parking burden. That takeover has lain dormant for nearly 22 months, while legal and political sparring took place which resulted in no fewer than six of Upland’s institutional leaders being shown the door or leaving of their own accord because of the controversy the yet-to-be-consummated parkland sale generated, not to mention city residents’ removal of the three of the city’s four council members who supported the sale who were up for voter approval in the last election cycle.
This time around, it appears that the hospital will seek to form a community consensus at the ballot box to effectuate the purchase, which those who opposed the sale have advocated be done all along.
On one level, San Antonio Hospital finds itself in this position not because of failure but rather success.
In 2011 Harris Koenig was named San Antonio Community Hospital’s CEO and president. Immediately thereupon, Koenig and the hospital’s board of directors embarked on transforming the institution from a community hospital into a regional institution. Using financing that consisted in large measure of $125,000,000 in certificates of participation issued using the City of Upland’s bonding authority, the hospital underwent six years of construction and renovations. That construction involved a series of planned expansion stages which increased the number of beds at the institution from 271 to over 400, saw the addition of the $160 million four-story Vineyard Tower at 999 San Bernardino Road, as well as another $30 million, 60,000-square-foot structure at 1100 San Bernardino Road, upped the number of stations in the hospital’s emergency room from 34 to 52, and created and outfitted 12 more intensive care units.
In a remarkable misjudgment, neither the hospital nor the city’s community development division had foreseen or taken stock of the degree to which the hospital room expansion and its accompanying increase in not only patients but visiting family members and friends would result in overwhelming the hospital’s existing provisions for parking. Indeed, when the city in 2015 updated its general plan after the hospital expansion had progressed for four years, still no heed had been given to the way in which the enlarging of the hospital’s footprint to that point had consumed some of the previously existing parking spaces, nor the likelihood that by the time the renovations were completed that more space for parking would be needed. Then-Upland Community Development Director Jeff Zwack had failed to ensure that arrangements for enhanced parking availability was included in the application/plans approved by the City of Upland for any of the hospital projects as required by law. Within two months of the completion of the hospital’s final expansion phase in 2017, the problems were manifest. At that point, Zwack huddled with interim City Manager Marty Thouvenell, Assistant City Manager Jeannette Vagnozzi, City Attorney Jim Markman and subsequently incoming City Manager Bill Manis, who began with the city in January 2018 as Thouvenell transitioned into the status of the city’s senior management consultant. Together they sought to find some way to assist the hospital. All five officials were sensitive to San Antonio Hospital’s status as the city’s major institution and largest employer, and they considered accommodating its needs to be paramount.
Penultimately, the five, together with Doug Story, who had been promoted to the capacity of Upland’s recreation manager in the September/October 2017 timeframe, devised a plan that would in a relatively short period end their status as City of Upland employees.
Stealthily, on March 26, 2018, after having given the community a mere 72 hours notice, Manis, Thouvenell, Markman, Vagnozzi and Story presented and recommended to the city council a proposal that called for the city selling to the hospital 4.631 acres of the southwestern portion of Memorial Park, which contains a baseball field that is actively used by the city’s youth sports leagues.
In compliance with that recommendation, the city council with remarkably little deliberation that night voted 3-to-1 to approve a purchase and sale agreement between the hospital and the city, with San Antonio Hospital committing to paying $906,931.55 per acre, or a total of $4.2 million, to acquire the 4.631 acres. Mayor Debbie Stone and then-council members Gino Filippi and Carol Timm went along with making the sale. Councilwoman Janice Elliott opposed it. Then-Councilman Sid Robinson, who normally voted in lockstep with Stone, Filippi and Timm, was not present at the meeting.
In approving the sale, the city council authorized City Attorney James Markman to undertake a so-called validation proceeding intended to foreclose any procedural or future legal challenge to the sale. In its validation action filed with the court, the city invited anyone opposed to the sale to lodge a protest. A challenge to the validation had to be filed within 60 days. Once the court validated the sale, any future lawsuits contesting the sale would be barred. The calculation by those favoring the sale was that no one would go to the expense of hiring an attorney to make an answer to the validation petition.
The validation procedure was directed to the courtroom of Superior Court Judge David Cohn in San Bernardino. To the chagrin of city and hospital officials, Marjorie Mikels, an attorney living in the city, as well as the Inland Oversight Committee represented by Cory Briggs, an attorney based in both Upland and San Diego, filed answers to the validation action. Those responses took issue with the sale on multiple grounds, among which was that the city selling off a slice of the park – in particular the one sold by the council on March 26, 2018, which included the long extant and actively used baseball field – is tantamount to abandoning public property. Such abandonments, under state law, cannot be effectuated without a vote of the citizens residing in the jurisdiction that owns that property.
Faced with not one but two challenges to the sale he had not anticipated, City Attorney Markman sought to convince Judge Cohn that the city council, acting on its own authority, was within its rights to sell off city land. In response to the argument that a municipality’s abandonment of property it owned and was putting to beneficial public use had to be subjected to a vote, Markman asserted that selling the property did not constitute an abandonment.
Ultimately, some 14 months after the sale of the park property was approved by the city council, on May 29, 2019, Judge Cohn, after hearing the responses to the city’s filing, dismissed its petition for validation. Judge Cohn’s ruling cleared the way for anyone with standing – meaning essentially any city resident – to file a lawsuit challenging the sale.
Before 2018 had fully run, several of those who had been involved in the park sale had paid a severe price and the others were headed toward a rendezvous with destiny.
In June of that year, Zwack abruptly retired as the city’s development services director. In September 2018, Manis resigned as city manager after a tenure of less than nine months, effective November 1, 2018. Councilman Sid Robinson’s status in Upland had largely been based upon his involvement in the city’s youth sports leagues. Suddenly, his voting record which was virtually indistinguishable from those of Mayor Stone and council members Filippi and Timm created a gulf between him and his natural constituency, given Stone’s, Filippi’s and Timm’s support of eradicating one of the city’s baseball diamonds. He announced he would not seek election that November. When that election was held, Filippi and Timm, who had become the object of a large number of voters’ wrath in part due to their March 28 vote to sell off 12 percent of Memorial Park, were voted out of office, while Councilwoman Janice Elliott, who had opposed the parkland sale, emerged victorious in her effort to gain election in the city’s newly created Second District, as the city held its first by-district election.
Roughly a month after the election, seeing the writing on the wall, Thovenell resigned his position as the city’s managerial consultant.
Jeannette Vagnozzi, who had been promoted to acting city manager upon the announcement of Manis’s resignation and then was elevated to the position of city manager by the lame duck city council without Elliott’s support in November 2018,  and City Attorney Jim Markman, who had been almost as much as Zwack an architect of the parkland sale, managed to survive the close of 2018. But by May of 2019, Vagnozzi was chased out of Upland, essentially fired by the city council as city manager.
That same month, Judge Cohn’s ruling had dismissed the validation action the city had filed to keep the sale of the park property from being challenged, at which point Markman found himself under siege as well. Not only was his legal expertise and judgment subject to question, it was painfully obvious that his militating on behalf of the hospital in its effort to obtain the park property for a parking lot was out of step with a sizable cross section of the most civically-active residents of the city. In October 2019, as the city council was making preparations to terminate him, Markman resigned as city attorney, and was replaced by Stephen Flower, a member of Markman’s law firm, as interim city attorney.
A month before Markman’s forced departure, San Antonio Hospital CEO and President Harris Koenig had been fired by the San Antonio Hospital Board of Directors. While the six-year-long expansion of the hospital that had begun shortly after Koening had been named the president and CEO of San Antonio Hospital in June 2011 modernized, upgraded and improved the hospital, the hospital’s earnings from 2016 onward had not been proportional to the investment that had been made to accomplish those improvements. A factor was the plain inconvenience both old and new patients and their families had to endure in simply finding a place to park when seeking to use the hospital. Consequently, some individuals who have been treated at the hospital over the last several years, reluctant to have to deal with the torturous effort to find a place to park, are now going elsewhere in search of medical care.
After Judge Cohn’s ruling in May 2019, those yet hoping that the city might be prevailed upon to let go of some of the park acreage so the parking structure could be built turned to Recreation Director Doug Story in a last ditch effort to formulate some way to have the city’s residents hold still for a reduction in the Memorial Park acreage. Story at that point threw together an application for $8.5 million in Proposition 68 park development/improvement grant money from the State of California. Story’s request was that the city be given the $8.5 million, the most any governmental jurisdiction could receive under the auspices of Proposition 68, to refurbish or replace Memorial Park’s playground equipment, add a water splash pad, an amphitheater and an artificial turf multi-sports competition field, augment the park with walking and exercise trails, a basketball court and a garden of native plants with trees and plants hospitable toward bees, hummingbirds and the like. In this way, Story hoped, Upland’s citizenry would ignore that accompanying the park enhancements would be the reduction of the 38.5 acre park by 4.631 acres.
When certain residents last fall asked him how it was that he could be so confident that the city was going to receive any grant money at all based on Upland proving the Memorial Park environs was an “economically disadvantaged” area and other competitive criteria, Story evinced impatience with the questions, brooking no suggestion that the state would turn the city’s supplication for the grant down. He was equally dismissive of any insinuation that the city might get less than the $8.5 million he had applied for. Abruptly, amid reports that someone had “dimed the city out” by calling state officials to inform them that the city did not meet specific criteria in the formula the state applies for determining a governmental jurisdiction’s eligibility to receive the Proposition 68 grant money, Story departed Upland to take up another position with the City of Beaumont. One of those grant eligibility criteria is that the city have a “deficit” of parkland such that its total park area is less than three acres per 1,000 people in the city overall. Another requirement is that that those living within Memorial Park’s “service area” be documented as having an average per-household annual income of less than $51,000.
With Story’s departure, he joined Koenig. Robinson, Filippi, Timm, Manis, Thouvenell, Vagnozzi, Zwack  and Markman as casualties of the city’s not-fully-thought-out March 2018 ploy to sacrifice a portion of Memorial Park to solve San Antonio Hospital’s parking issues. The only participant in that debacle that yet remains in position is Mayor Debbie Stone. She will be up for election in November.
When Judge Cohn made his ruling in May 2019, hospital officials appeared to have resigned themselves to the necessity of subjecting the sale of the property to a citywide vote. It earlier appeared that balloting would take place in conjunction with the March 2020 California Primary election. City and hospital officials put that on hold, however, hoping that Story’s gambit in getting the Proposition 68 money might placate Upland’s citizenry to the point that the sale of the 4.631 acres to the hospital could take place without any further objection, resistance or effective obstruction. With that having apparently failed, there were reports this week that city officials and the hospital are once again looking toward holding that vote, this time in November.
An issue that has gotten little public discussion is the possibility of reducing the acreage the hospital will need to meet its parking demand by building up rather than out. In 2018, Zwack had indicated that the hospital would be using some of the park acreage it was to obtain to construct a parking structure. Since before Zwack’s departure, however, discussion has been in terms of a parking lot rather than a structure. According to sources the Sentinel deems reliable, San Antonio Hospital considers it more propitious to acquire adequate property to accommodate the parking it needs than to accrue the expense of building a parking structure. At present, the hospital’s parking space deficit at peak usage is approaching 250 parking stalls. By purchasing the 4.631 acres, upon which 96 parking spaces plus driving lanes per acre can be established, the hospital can meet its current need and any future need projected into the foreseeable future. However, a one-acre four-story parking structure that included roof parking would accommodate 410 parking spaces, when subtraction of usable parking space to allow for ramps is figured in. Such a structure could be constructed on an acre of ground now used as the hospital’s parking lot. Subtracting the current 96 spaces located on that acre from the 410 parking stalls the structure would provide would give the hospital a net gain of 314 parking spots, adequate to meet its current needs and those likely to develop over the next decade.
Like Koenig before him, the hospital’s current acting CEO, John Chapman does not appear to be favorably inclined to converting the hospital’s existing surface grade parking lot to a parking structure. Rather, word is that the hospital is considering defraying the cost not only of a citywide vote on the parkland sale in November, but a public information campaign to convince the electorate that San Antonio Hospital’s place and stature within the Upland community as well as the lifesaving and health-enhancing service it provides merits the citizenry’s support in carrying out its medical mission. Chapman was traveling this week, and was therefore not available to speak with the Sentinel.
Cathy Rebman, San Antonio Hospital’s vice president for business development and community outreach, did say however that “San Antonio Regional Hospital is reviewing the potential park purchase. Any decision to proceed with a ballot initiative would require approval by the hospital’s board of trustees. More information can be provided after the board of trustees makes a decision about next steps regarding the park purchase.”
-Mark Gutglueck

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