At tense, quirky hearing, Lexington Primary Care Center employees speak about director

Tensions ran high Wednesday night outside a closed meeting concerning William North, executive director of the Lexington Primary Care Center.

The center, funded by tax dollars, offers health care to 17,000 patients a year, most of them poor.

The Lexington-Fayette County Health Department and the Primary Care Governing Council, which oversees the Primary Care Center, are arguing about North. Dr. Melinda Rowe, health department commissioner, suspended him with pay, but then the Primary Care board voted to keep him.

Rowe has not said why North is suspended, when the suspension started or when it will end.

Wednesday's meeting, which was to have lasted one hour but went on for 31/2, was called to let staffers express their opinions about North.

About 20 staff members gathered, as specified in written instructions, in a conference room on the third floor of the Primary Care Center building on Newtown Pike to wait their turns to go before a committee of members of the Primary Care Governing Council and the Board of Health.

They waited. And waited. And waited.

The eight-member committee had said the session, which began at 5:30 p.m., would be limited to one hour; they also said each speaker would get about three minutes.

An hour in, two employees had been called from the conference room to speak before the committee. The meeting ended about 9 p.m.

Some staff members, including Dr. Deborah Stanley, the medical director, and operations officer Kyle Black were given more than three minutes in front of the committee.

In addition, some staff members did not have to wait in the conference room. They apparently went straight from an elevator into the conference room without other staffers seeing them.

Dr. Cindy Derer, a board of health member who called the meeting, even asked staff members to clear the hall so some employees could enter and leave the meeting room without being seen. She cited the need for "privacy."

Lexington-Fayette County Health Department spokesman Kevin Hall said that although it's been made clear that employees will not be retaliated against for talking to the committee, some asked for anonymity. When asked why this offer wasn't made to all staffers, he said some were more proactive than others.

Most of the staff members waiting in the conference room appeared to be pro-North, but they declined to comment publicly. Many said they were concerned about losing their jobs. Only Renna Kitts, a registration clerk, agreed to comment. She said she wanted to share what she intended to tell the committee because, about 90 minutes into the process, only a handful of employees had been pulled from the conference room, and she wasn't sure she was going to get to speak.

"I find him a man of great integrity," Kitts said of North, adding that losing him would be a blow to the Primary Care Center.

A petition in support of North began circulating Tuesday. It had 122 signatures as of last night.

Some of the 20 employees in the conference room left after waiting more than an hour for a chance to speak. In the end, about 10 people from the conference room talked to the committee.

It was not a stress-free atmosphere.

At one point, the first young woman to appear before the committee was questioned by Sunider Sabharwal, once head of the center's pharmacy, who asked her what she said. (Problems with the pharmacy have been cited at earlier public meetings, and some employees have alleged there is a DEA investigation, which health officials deny.)

The woman did not respond to Sabharwal's question, but she was visibly upset and left the conference room. Shortly thereafter, Stanley came into the room and told the group all comments must remain civil.

Interrupting her, Sabharwal said "Who are you pointing at, Dr. Stanley?"

It's unclear what right the committee had to hold a meeting in the first place. Nowhere in the health department's regulations for dealing with discipline is there a stipulation allowing for a meeting at which employees may comment anonymously on other employees' actions.

Hall said employees are always interviewed when there are allegations of misconduct. This meeting represented that idea on a larger scale. And, he said, the department has never dealt with a problems such as the controversy surrounding North.

The committee will make a recommendation to Rowe about whether to keep North. Rowe has agreed to go along with its decision, Hall said. The time frame is unclear.

The center is under investigation by the Kentucky Office of the Inspector General. Richard Moloney, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray's chief administrative officer, has been assigned to work on the issues with the Primary Care Governing Council and the Fayette County Board of Health.

At 8 p.m., while the meeting was continuing, North was in the Primary Care Center lobby eating a Subway sandwich with his lawyer. They had no comment.

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