Two members of the Northfield Charter Commission are seeking to shift the Hospital Board appointment process away from the mayor.

Under the proposed changes, introduced by James Schlichting and David Ludescher, the authority to appoint members of the Hospital Board would shift from the mayor making appointments contingent on City Council approval to the Hospital Board making recommendations to the council for approval.

Ludescher said Mayor Rhonda Pownell has been “dictatorial” in the appointment process across city boards and commissions. He spoke against her choosing not to re-nominate “very qualified” former board members Charlie Kyte and Virginia Kaczmarek to their Hospital Board positions and instead appoint herself and Fred Rogers for the positions. Kyte is a former school administrator and served for more than a decade as executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators. Kaczmarek is the former Northfield Area Family YMCA director credited with leading the fundraising campaign that helped build the city’s Y.

Ludescher said no explanation has been given as to why Pownell recommended the two not be reappointed.

“She’s doing it all across city government, quite frankly,” he said.

David Ludescher

Ludescher

Pownell said she appointed herself in 2018 for a one-year term so she could have a better understanding of how the board functioned and the proper people for her to nominate.

“I utilized this experience together with many conversations with Hospital Board members and hospital staff to guide my recommendations,” she said. “I have also asked that the City Hospital Governance Committee explore additional measures to make sure we are putting the best City Hospital Board together possible to oversee the operations of such an important entity in our community.”

Pownell called the accusation she is being dictatorial in the process “really inaccurate,” adding her proposed appointments have nearly all been unanimously approved by the council. She said she has been open with the Hospital Board and has asked for help from councilors and community members to recruit commission members.

Pownell added she speaks with everyone who submits an application to serve on the Hospital Board.

“If anything, it’s far more collaborative than it ever has been,” she said.

{p dir=”ltr”}Pownell said there is already a Charter provision allowing boards and commissions to make recommendations to the City Council on any issue or appointment.

Rhonda Pownell mug

Pownell

“It’s a really well-vetted process,” she said. She cited her appointments of former physician Bob Shepley, organizational director expert Sarah Carlsen and Northfield City Councilor Jessica Peterson White as quality appointments.

“We have some really wonderful people who are serving on our Hospital Board,” Pownell said.

To Ludescher, a Northfield city councilor from 2012 to 2016, the council “ignored” the advice of boards and commissions during his four years on the council. He said continuing to do so will make it more difficult to recruit people to serve on boards and commissions. To him, there is a lack of oversight in Northfield city government.

He said the Hospital Board should have an array of members who are knowledgeable about hospital affairs, bring a community perspective and advance the organization as a whole.

Ludescher said appointing powers also need to be returned to the Hospital Board because the current format raises the possibility of unqualified board members being appointed by the mayor.

“Once the precedent has been set, and the next mayor comes in and sees that they can do that, they’re going to do the same thing,” Ludescher added. He expressed concern that an uninformed mayor could then wreak havoc on hospital operations.

He said as the hospital gets bigger, city ownership makes it more difficult for the organization to operate.

Pownell said because Northfield owns the hospital, board members serve at the pleasure of the city. She spoke of the importance of keeping a collaborative relationship with the hospital to ensure they can continue to function well together.

“We are working diligently to become even better than what they are currently,” she said.

Ludescher says it’s not the first time the mayor has overstepped her role in dealing with boards and commissions.

Ludescher said when he was Charter Commission chairman, the board had three people apply for two open positions. Accepted practice to appoint members was for the chair to send his preferred two members to the chief judge. Ludescher challenged that decision but later resigned as chairman due to the conflict. The two members were later allowed to serve on the Charter Commission.

Pownell said no Hospital Board recommendation has been made to the council on the appointment process. She expressed disappointment at the accusations and the way they were presented.

“Doing it through the local newspaper is really an unhealthy approach, in my mind,” she said of comments Ludescher made to the News.

The Charter Commission last month voted to table the resolution until November.

Ludescher noted the Charter Commission could propose a change, and the council could unanimously approve it, or the change could go to a public vote, which would need only a simple majority to approve.

Other possibilities he raised included the City Council and Hospital Board agreeing to a policy to communicate about available and qualified candidates without changing the Charter, or Charter Commission members independently looking at the broader issue of board and commission appointments and whether the council is fully implementing the requirements as part of the Charter.

In an emailed response to questions, Northfield Hospital & Clinics CEO Steve Underdahl said the board and administrators are responsible for providing “governance and management for the medical center. It’s not our role to appoint board members. We rely on our colleagues in city government to conduct that process with the best interests of the community in mind.”

To Underdahl, the joint task force on governance has been a useful tool in strengthening communication and collaboration between them.

“It’s a collegial process for proactive problem-solving and collaboration,” he said.

“We have a very engaged board, with a great breadth of expertise, that’s really focused on the health and well-being of the medical center,” Underdahl added, “With the ultimate goal of the health and well-being of the community.”

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115.

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