Hospital talks city charter changes

WILLMAR -- The board of Rice Memorial Hospital has approached Willmar Mayor Les Heitke about expanding the size of the board and allowing for longer terms.

WILLMAR -- The board of Rice Memorial Hospital has approached Willmar Mayor Les Heitke about expanding the size of the board and allowing for longer terms.

Board members believe it would help make the board more effective.

The issues were raised during a recent self-evaluation and forwarded to the mayor last week during the hospital board's annual planning session.

The proposed changes -- if they're approved -- will mean revising the city charter, which governs the structure of the city-owned hospital's board of directors.

There's been no formal discussion yet with the Willmar City Council.


In conversation with the hospital board, however, Heitke said he's willing to talk about it further. He also agreed to place the issue on the agenda for the City Council's upcoming retreat.

Hospital board members have said they'd like to increase physician representation on the board to reflect the growing diversity of the medical community.

The charter currently allows for one physician on the seven-member board; board members have suggested increasing this to two.

"Because of the complexity of the medical community, I think that would be a positive thing," said Doug Allen, Ridgewater College president and a member of the hospital board. "One of the things we're trying to do here is figure out how to work with the community."

The board also has proposed extending term limits to nine years. Terms on the hospital board are for three years; a maximum of two terms, or six years, is currently allowed.

New board members face a steep learning curve, said Verna Kelly, chairman of the board. "It takes a couple of years for you to even figure out the lingo."

Board education also can be expensive, she said.

Heitke said he'd be open to adding another physician to the board.


"Expanding the board, I think, could happen," he said.

To avoid tie votes, however, the board should probably be increased by two positions to make it nine members rather than eight, he said.

It's less clear whether term limits should be extended.

There's already some precedent. The Willmar Housing and Redevelopment Authority board allows two five-year terms, for a maximum of 10 years. All the other city boards are limited to two three-year terms, however.

Heitke, who has the authority to appoint the hospital board trustees, said longer terms could be a lot to ask. "It's a lot of work. It's often a lot of time. A nine-year commitment is a substantial commitment for anybody," he said.

Longer terms also would have to be balanced against the benefit of bringing in new board members with fresh perspectives, he said.

There was no consensus either on whether to relax a requirement that board members live within the city limits of Willmar. The charter was revised several years ago to make an exception for the physician representative -- but kept a stipulation that the physician's primary place of practice be in Willmar.

The residency requirement hit the hospital board especially hard in 2003, when two board members moved outside the city limits and both had to be replaced.


Board members suggested to Heitke that board members who move be allowed to finish their term, as long as they still reside in the immediate area.

There could be some benefit to regional representation on the hospital board, since many patients, as well as employees, live outside of Willmar, Heitke said.

The fact that Rice Hospital is a city entity, however, means it will be Willmar taxpayers who must support the hospital if it starts losing money, Heitke said.

"I'm very conscious of the fact that the financial responsibility for the hospital rests with the citizens of Willmar. I can't lose track of that," he said.

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