The board filed the lawsuit for declaratory judgment in Calhoun County Circuit Court against Consolidated Publishing Co., which owns The Star. Since RMC purchased Jacksonville Medical Center in December, The Star has requested the purchase price and other contract details under the state’s open records law, but has not filed any legal action.
“There just didn’t seem any need to go to court … this is such, to our minds, an open-and-shut open records case,” said Bob Davis, editor and associate publisher of The Star. “But court is where we find ourselves and we will make our argument before a court and the judge.”
RMC is an Anniston-based, nonprofit hospital with a board composed entirely of members appointed by local governments, such as the Anniston and Jacksonville city councils. RMC’s attorney, Michael Jackson, declined to comment on the lawsuit until he had received permission to do so from The Star’s attorney, Jim Pewitt. Pewitt agreed to contact Jackson and give him permission Wednesday afternoon. Jackson did not contact The Star by deadline of this article.
The lawsuit requests the court conduct a hearing or hearings on the issue and declare that the contract related to the Jacksonville hospital purchase is not subject to the state’s open records law. In the lawsuit, the board argues that it would be in the community’s best interests for RMC not to release the contract, “because otherwise the legislative purposes of promoting the public health of the people, of allowing public hospitals to operate as adequately and efficiently as investor-owned and community non-profit hospitals … would be thwarted and undermined.”
The lawsuit also reiterated an argument previously stated by RMC administrators that the board cannot release the contract because it signed a nondisclosure agreement with the seller of the Jacksonville hospital, Tennessee-based Capella Healthcare.
“We disagree strongly and view the document as public record,” Pewitt said. “There is already an Alabama court case that says the document is public record.”
Pewitt was referring to an Alabama Supreme Court decision in the 2010 case Tennessee Valley Printing Co., Inc. v. Health Care Authority of Lauderdale County and the city of Florence. In that case, the Health Care Authority had sold two public hospitals and would not release financial details about the transactions, arguing it was exempt from open records law. It had also promised confidentiality to bidders.
The state Supreme Court, however, ruled that as a government, public entity, the Health Care Authority was subject to the state’s Open Records Act.
Davis said the release of the contract will be of benefit to the public.
“RMC is a very important institution in our community – it doesn’t get much more important than taking care of people who are sick,” Davis said. “So the community has a vested interest in RMC being healthy financially and that it is making wise, good decisions.”
Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, said normally media entities are the ones who sue for a court to decide an open records request with an organization, not the other way around. The National Freedom of Information Coalition is a Missouri-based alliance of nonprofit, freedom-of-information organizations, academic and First Amendment centers, journalistic societies and attorneys.
“It is an extraordinary tactic,” Bunting said.
Bunting noted that open-records laws are not always clear regarding quasi-governmental entities, such as a nonprofit performing a governmental function.
“It’s all over the map across the country,” Bunting said.
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.