Sonoma West’s Relentless Vendetta to Stop Dan Smith from Re-Opening Palm Drive Hospital

Campaign of deceit disguises political attacks as news

(This article first appeared on December 30, 2014 at Waccobb.net)

As noted earlier, the latest issue of the Sonoma West contains an unusual lead article for a weekly local newspaper that ostensibly supports the interest of the community it serves. The front page article titled, “Sparks Fly around hospital’s major benefactor,” is newspaper publisher Rollie Atkinson’s Christmas day culmination of a misleading, months-long vendetta against software entrepreneur and philanthropist Dan Smith.

Smith’s purported offense? Expressing strong opinions in his dogged volunteer pursuit of reopening Sebastopol’s Palm Drive Hospital with a life saving emergency room.

Atkinson’s article, noticeably devoid of news, skewers the truth by repeating one sour grapes anti-Smith “bully” allegation after another. These charges of “bullying” are being made by the same former and current Palm Drive District Board members who, for the past four years, have grossly mismanaged the finances of the hospital and then voted, secretly in violation of the state’s Brown Act, to suddenly close Palm Drive Hospital last April. The very same elected Board members who rejected repeated admonitions by Dan Smith and other hospital system experts four years ago (see here) to address the declining finances of Palm Drive, and instead literally dismantled the hospital’s expert Financial Advisory Board for complaining too much about management’s financial performance.

So Atkinson’s latest in a series of anti-hospital reopening-screeds treats readers to a truth defying transformation of the hospital reopening narrative: That philanthropist Dan Smith, the leader of the successful effort to overturn an unpopular hospital board that refused to fulfill its sworn mission of providing an emergency room, is harming the effort to reopen it! The Sonoma West’s tagline,Bully charges hurting hospital’s reopening bid,should more honestly have read, This article hopes to hurt hospital’s reopening bid.”

During the past eight months, as I have reported on, and then advocated for, the hospital’s reopening, what has been most astonishing has been the lengths to which the politically powerful opponents of reopening an emergency room have gone to discredit, diminish, undermine and attack the effort that Dan Smith has led to restore Palm Drive Hospital.

 One would think that Smith would be cast as a hero by our local newspaper, and by the politicians that we elect to represent us. After all, he has spent literally years of uncompensated hard work, and donated millions of dollars, while twice saving and operating our award winning, much loved local hospital during the past 15 years.

Instead, the Campaign to vilify Smith and diminish his effort to keep the hospital open last April (and, since then, to reopen it as the Sonoma West Medical Center in four months) has defined the tenor of both Sebastopol’s City Council, its leading political power brokers Helen Shane and Craig Litwin, and the former Palm Drive District Health Board Chair Nancy Dobbs (who is also the powerful CEO of KRCB Public Media).

At the April 26 meeting in to decide upon a Foundation Plan that would have allowed the hospital to remain open with $1.5 million in donations from Smith and his activist wife Joan Marler, under the management of the Palm Drive Health Care Foundation (which has successfully operated the hospital in the past), Nancy Dobbs spoke vehemently against Smith’s plan. Dobbs accused Smith of having large conflicts of interest because he owns a hospital software company and plans to donate software and support services. to a new hospital. She then led the vote to instead close the hospital for the first time in 70 years, and turn away the Foundation plan, as well as the hundreds of her sick neighbors who had relied upon Palm Drive’s emergency room for decades.

Rollie Atkinson and the Sonoma West, which he owns, has been the main propaganda vehicle for Ms. Dobbs and her fellow “keep it closed” allies on the Board and in Sebastopol’s political establishment. A lead editorial in Sonoma West following the closing was headlined, “Palm Drive is Dead.” It reported, for those who had missed the detailed, 70 page proposal to keep the hospital open, that , “The proposals to re-open Palm Drive now being reviewed by the board of directors offer next to no hope or solid business planning. These plans are full of denial and some are tinged by current angers and other emotions.”

Atkinson’s newspaper could not be bothered to print any details of the actual proposal, or quotes from its hundreds of supporters in the community Instead, the Sonoma West chose to run a commentary by Jim Horn about why the Foundation plan was financially challenged. Horn was described as a member of the committee that reviewed the Foundation plan on behalf of the District Board. Horn scored the proposal as unacceptable and he takes the only column in that week’s newspaper to describe why the plan would never be viable.

What the Sonoma West conveniently failed to report was that two other far more experienced local health care experts (current Board Chair Jim Maresca and John Moisle) also reviewed the same Foundation plan, found it viable, and recommended that the Board accept it and keep Palm Drive open. News of this other recommendation never made it into the pages of the Sonoma West.

For the remainder of the year, Atkinson’s Sonoma West continued its campaign of deceit against Dan Smith, the Palm Drive Health Care Foundation, and any prospects of reopening the hospital. Scarcely a word was whispered in the news sections about the hundreds of jobs lost when Sebastopol’s largest employer shut down, or the largest public health service crisis in modern history, with hundreds of seniors and children and parents and other West County residents suffering (and a few dying) due to the longer drive and far longer wait times and less personal service at big city Santa Rosa hospitals.

Instead, the stories that Atkinson’s Sonoma West have deemed fit to print are all about the challenges facing reopening, even when those challenges are fabrications. For instance, just as a new post-election Board majority was being seated last month and preparing to consider its vote to reopen the hospital, the Sonoma West’s front page article was headlined, Palm Drive bankruptcy tops other concerns.”

In it, publisher Atkinson informed readers, “All of the various stories about Palm Drive Hospital, including the recent health care district election, the loss of the West County’s emergency room, the “Open Our Hospital” campaign, the future of the parcel tax and the calls to “pull the plug” and sell the hospital, are all trumped by a bigger story.”

That “bigger story” was not those who have suffered from a closed emergency room, but was, according to the Sonoma West, the bankruptcy proceedings the following week: “Any future plan to spend parcel tax funds, reopen the mothballed hospital or sell off any Health Care District assets must be approved by U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Alan Jaroslovsky.”

This “bigger story” last month never materialized. Because it was not a story at all. In fact, as I reported here last May, the bankruptcy court has no direct approval power over how parcel tax funds are to be spent (check out the U.S. bankruptcy Court’s info page explaining this here).

And now we have the latest issue’s absurd attack. With the intention, it would seem, to dissuade donors from joining Dan Smith and Joan Marler and hundreds of us who are now writing checks to help get our emergency room back. Atkinson basically blames Smith for not having additional millions to put into the project, and for “frightening” donors through his involvement. As though Smith is the only person in West County who bears responsibility for contributing to an actual solution that restores an emergency room. As though Smith was somehow responsible for the inaccurate notice, absence of financial planning, inaccurate reporting and lax oversight that led to a hospital closing so unexpected that Palm Drive and to get special dispensation to close in less than 30 days, instead of the 90 days required by law before closing an emergency room.

It is a lot to ask a small weekly newspaper to always get its facts straight, or to to provide the hours it takes to fully and insightfully report on a story as important and complex as why Palm Drive Hospital closed–and what will take to successfully reopen it.

But it is not too much to expect our community newspaper and its publisher to share a page from the universal medical oath, and at least do no harm.

The founder and Editor of the Sonoma County Independent, Greenberg is an investigative financial journalist with 35 years of experience with national publications. Greenberg writes a political blog that appears in the Huffington Post In 2015, he won two first prizes from the Greater Bay Journalism Awards for his coverage of the closing of Palm Drive Hospital. In 2014, he won first prize for analysis from Award competition for his coverage of the Monday closings of Sonoma County's libraries. He has been an investigative financial and political journalist for such publications as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Mother Jones, Forbes, New York, Money, The Bohemian, The Santa Rosa Press Democrat, Playboy, Self, Inc., GQ, The New Republic, and Alternet. He is also the author of several well-reviewed books. As a new media innovator who has developed a half dozen interactive web platforms and dozens of content-focused web sites, Greenberg is committed to enhancing responsive government and expanding media democracy. Greenberg is founder of Progressive Source Communications, a Sebastopol-based public interest communications company. In the past, he founded and managed two other online companies, TV1.com, and Gist.com. Greenberg’s political work included serving as Policy Director for the New York City Council’s Select Committee on Lower Manhattan Redevelopment in the years following 9-11. His work resulted in more than $250 million of federal funds being re-directed to needy businesses and constituents in the impacted area. Greenberg has been Vice President of Fenton Communication’s New York office. His work on behalf of non-profit organizations has included communications consulting for Save Darfur, Stonyfield Farm, the ACLU, and the Lakota People’s Law Project. Greenberg holds a B.A. in writing from the State University of New York at Binghamton, and a Masters Degree in Law from Yale Law School, where he graduated with honors in First Amendment Law.
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