Who is in charge? That’s what I thought last September as raw sewage flowed out of Saint John’s Health Center, through our streets, into our storm drains, and onto Will Rogers State Beach, which was closed for four days because of a (supposedly unrelated) 10,000-gallon sewage spill.
Keep in mind that this hospital, one of 15 owned by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health System, contaminates the air around it for four hours at a time, twice a week, every week, when it pumps its sewage into trucks to be hauled away. The hospital’s story is that a “design flaw” prevents sewage from being pumped into city pipes and it’s too expensive to fix; even though the SCLHS had the $300 million it needed to take over two Denver hospitals last year. I was watching the SJHCIMPACTS video on YouTube, remembering the stench from my days living on 23rd Street, and wondering why nobody from City Hall was saying or doing anything about it.
A little investigative journalism revealed the answer, and it didn’t bode well for the hospital’s neighbors — including McKinley Elementary School — because the person in charge at Saint John’s lives in Kansas and only cares about the people of Santa Monica inasmuch as we pad her bottom line.
So I set out to determine who in city government should be protecting us from Sister Sue Miller of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth and her giant hospital corporation. I’m sorry to report that our first line of defense, the Planning and Community Development Department, has failed. What’s worse is they don’t even realize it.
The week after Thanksgiving, the editor of your Daily Press informed me that a meeting was being scheduled with Planning Director Eileen Fogarty to discuss the status of the city’s development agreements. I knew from City Councilmembers Kevin McKeown and Gleam Davis that Ms. Fogarty is the first person with oversight of Saint John’s, and I was looking forward to asking some specific questions arising from the now infamous development agreement between the hospital and City Hall.
When she opened the meeting by saying that all 11 agreements are up to date and all parties are in compliance, I was excited to get answers to the questions the hospital’s neighbors have been asking for years. But not only did Ms. Fogarty, Planning Division Manager Amanda Schachter, and Principal Planner Brad Misner (point-person on the Saint John’s agreement) have literally no answers to my questions, Ms. Fogarty actually got upset with me for “interrogating” her. Out of fairness, I held this column for six weeks over the holidays to allow them to set the record straight. I’m sure they’re all good people and I appreciate the hard work they did (especially in the last few weeks of December gathering hundreds of pages of documents), but that doesn’t change the outcome — which is all bad for the people of Santa Monica.
On the big issues related to Saint John’s Health Center — sewage and the construction of an underground parking garage — the agreement refers to two specific documents the planning department should have — neither of which it has been able to produce. They are an “urban runoff mitigation plan” and a “parking operations plan” for that garage.
The first is important because of the aforementioned “design flaw.” It’s possible the plan to deal with runoff required the hospital to take preventive measures like fixing the sewage system, but we’ll never know until someone finds it. The second document is critical because it was supposed to have been submitted and approved before construction could begin on the new inpatient suites. The language of the agreement is unmistakable. “No construction of the inpatient suites may commence prior to approval of such parking plans by the planning director.”
Since those suites are now completed, the hospital’s submitted and approved plan for operating the North Subterranean Parking Garage should be in a file somewhere. But more than a month after it was requested, the document remains elusive.
There are two key legal points at issue: First, City Hall may change the agreement if it determines that failure to do so would be dangerous to the health or safety of residents — and rivers of filth are definitely health hazards. Second, the agreement is a city ordinance; so not complying in good faith is a violation of law. When there is no mention of an underground parking garage on the site map of the new Saint John’s, no designs or specifications for that garage, and no evidence of a plan for operating that garage (which is to be completed by summer), it is hard to argue good faith compliance.
Sister Sue has a cute little quirk in her corporate structure that allows the 15 local hospitals to cry broke because they can’t spend money (that authority is exclusively hers). With the help of high-priced lawyers like Chris Harding, who has been on this case from the beginning, she may think she can use her cash to crap on our community forever and ever. But despite the best efforts of local sellouts like Harding and Shane Miller and the failure of our Planning Department, we still have the power. No matter what anyone does or doesn’t do, it will eventually fall to our City Council to either lie down for Sister Sue or shut her down until she does the right thing.
Kenny Mack is a multi-platform content provider with four-quadrant crossover appeal who still has nightmares about a Saint John’s sewage truck overturning at the corner of 24th and Arizona. His past columns are archived at http://www.ifyoumissedit.com and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.