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Council narrowly approves controversial Central Health board nominee

Friday, June 16, 2017 by Jack Craver

By a one-vote margin, City Council approved the appointment of a new member to the Central Health Board of Managers after complaints about the nominee’s potential conflicts of interest.

Council voted 6-5 to assign Julie Oliver, a division controller for St. David’s HealthCare, to a vacant seat on the nine-member board that governs Central Health, a public health authority that provides free medical services to the poor and uninsured of Travis County.

Voting in favor of confirmation were Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council members Ora Houston, Delia Garza, Ann Kitchen, Jimmy Flannigan and Ellen Troxclair. Joining Mayor Steve Adler in voting against were Council members Greg Casar, Pio Renteria, Leslie Pool and Alison Alter.

Oliver’s nomination to the board was put forward by the Council Health and Human Services Committee after a review of a large number of candidates, Council Member Ora Houston, the committee chair, told the Austin Monitor last month.

The nomination immediately sparked opposition, however.

First, some have argued that the board needed to be more representative of the population that Central Health is serving. Only two of the nine board members are Latino, compared to two-thirds of Central Health’s clientele.

Paul Saldaña, a former Austin Independent School District trustee and co-founder of Hispanic Advocates Business Leaders of Austin, held a press conference on Monday to speak out against Oliver’s confirmation.

In an interview Thursday with the Monitor, Saldaña said he was disappointed by the vote, and emphasized the need for Council to strive for greater diversity among the people it appoints to “coveted positions.”

Saldaña added that there is a greater diversity within the Latino community that often goes unconsidered by city officials.

“The assumption is that Latinos are always Mexican-American and that’s not true,” he said. “There are 25 (Latino) sub-cultures in Austin.”

Saldaña, who is Mexican-American, noted that the two Latino members of the board, Guadalupe Zamora and Cynthia Valadez, are also of Mexican descent. Ideally, he said, the Central Health Board would better reflect the different origins and cultures among the Hispanic population, which is also made up of a large number of people from countries in Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

The other major objection to Oliver’s nomination was based on her role with St. David’s, which some Council members and Central Health Board Chair Katrina Daniel argued presented a myriad of conflicts of interest.

In a statement following Oliver’s confirmation, Daniel welcomed her new colleague to the board and called her “highly qualified.” She made clear, however, that she would not disregard the concerns she expressed previously about whether Oliver would be able to partake in as much as half of the votes taken by the board.

“My concerns are tied to her current employment situation and those concerns remain,” she said. “I will work with Ms. Oliver, the board, and the county attorney to mitigate challenges as they arise.”

Oliver, informed by the Monitor that she had been confirmed, said she was excited to start working on solutions to expand access to health care.

“I am honored, honored, honored,” she said.

Oliver also insisted that it wouldn’t be a challenge to work on a board whose chair had opposed her appointment.

“I don’t have any qualms about working with (Daniel), any hard feelings,” said Oliver. “She quite honestly doesn’t know me, so had to do what she thought was in the best interests of the organization she serves.”

Earlier this month, Daniel sent a report to Council arguing that Oliver, because of her top-level position with one of the area’s major hospitals, would have to recuse herself from most of the important budgetary votes the board takes. Because St. David’s either directly competes for funds distributed by the agency or could stand to benefit from one its competitors, notably Seton Healthcare Family, not receiving funds, Daniel reasoned that there was little that Oliver could consider objectively.

Oliver said she did not agree with the all of Daniel’s conclusions, saying that there were a lot of projects that “have nothing to do with St. David’s.”

Despite the controversy surrounding the vote, there was little debate preceding the vote. Houston reaffirmed her support for Oliver and Renteria said that the concerns raised had forced him to vote against.

Council members may have discussed the issue at greater length during the private executive session they held with the city’s legal counsel before the vote.

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