SEABHS ousts board member; Work to retain public fundsBy Thelma Grimes
Wick News Service
After an argument over recent press coverage, board members of the Southeastern Arizona Behavioral Health Services (SEABHS) blamed Marcelino Varona Jr. for the negative publicity, and in a majority vote Thursday night, forcibly removed him from the board.
After discussing regular business matters for more than hour, Jim Rubio, the acting CEO, began his report about how SEABHS will correct company services to retain public funding.
Varona asked Rubio why he and other board members did not receive a copy of the Dec. 17 letter sent to SEABHS from the Community Partnership of Southern Arizona Regional Behavioral Health Authority (CPSA) ordering them to fix five areas of concern or face a loss of $35 million in public funding.
“I am not John Doe off the street; they can read about it in the newspaper. I am a board member,” Varona said. “It’s important when something like this that could jeopardize our financial stability happens that I know about it. I should not find out about it in the newspaper.”
Board Chairman Tim Sikkema said he felt the letter should be kept quiet, due to “leaks to the newspaper.”
“We have had a very negative response over the newspaper coverage,” he said.
Varona said there is nothing wrong with the media’s covering the situation, but there is something wrong with board members being kept in the dark about what is happening.
The former mayor of Nogales pointed out that despite Sikkema’s efforts, Wick Communications still got the information.
“I have a problem that I, as a board member, have been kept away from these happenings,” Varona said. “I am entitled to know all the information that is happening. With something as pertinent as this, where in a few months we have to tell people to go home, I want that information. We have an obligation to protect the financial integrity and well-being of every employee.”
When Varona wanted to continue discussing the matter, Sikkema asked for an immediate executive session, which was not listed on the meeting agenda. With Bill Inman moving to go into executive session, and a second from Kathleen Krueger, the measure passed 5-2.
Varona and Dan Doyle, another Santa Cruz representative, voted against it, stating the issues should be discussed publicly.
After about 30 minutes, the regular meeting resumed, with board member Dick Hamilton of Benson stepping outside the agenda to make a motion to have Varona removed from the board.
Hamilton said a two-thirds vote of the board can remove a board member when “it will serve the best interest of the company.”
Inman seconded the motion, and it carried in a 5-2 vote. By phone board member Mike Ruterman cast his vote in favor of the motion.
Ruterman has not attended any board meetings in November or December, and according to Varona, has not attended any of the meetings until Thursday night when they needed a certain number of votes.
Asked Friday morning, Hamilton said he planned to remove Varona from the board prior to the meeting and discussed the matter with Sikkema of Sierra Vista on how to do it.
Hamilton said he felt it was in the best interest of the agency to have Varona removed, stating there has been a lot of “dissention” on the board, and it will “operate better without him.”
Immediately following the vote, Doyle, who voted against the measure, resigned.
Before leaving, Varona gave a heated speech to the sitting board.
“Now you have the little group you want,” he said. “A group where you can continue to hide behind closed doors. You have established a culture of secrecy and deception. We can just call your clan the $150,000 give-away of corruption.”
In September, the Arizona Attorney General started investigating some SEABHS employees for embezzlement, and former CEO Dana Johnson for borrowing $150,000, and never repaying it.
Several current board members, including Inman and Hamilton, were on the 2004 board that approved Johnson’s loan, and the board that approved an extension in 2007. To date, the money has not been repaid.
Varona was adamant over the last few months that SEABHS cannot continue with business as usual, that there are real problems that must be addressed.
Some of those problems include a former SEABHS employee being charged by the state with embezzlement for allegedly stealing $30,000 from the company, another employee being investigated for using SEABHS services on a personal vehicle and other problems resulting from Johnson’s management for 14 years.
Varona said the board wanted him removed because “I have my own mind,” and didn’t succumb to their threats to have him removed if he didn’t quit speaking out.
CPSA ordered SEABHS to fix its financial problems, work on upgrading services and employee levels, work on networking with organizations and sub-contractors and fix community relations. All of the issues were outlined by CPSA in a Dec. 17 “Letter of Cure,” which stated that if the problems are not fixed by May, the company will lose public funds.
Rubio said Thursday night that SEABHS complied with the Jan. 19 deadline to submit a correction report. CPSA is expected to respond by Feb. 3.
Hamilton said a lot of the issues brought up by Varona were valid.
“Having him removed was not about the questions he asked, but about how he asked them,” said the long-time board member. “We are in a bad place right now, and it will take some time for things to get back on track.”
Hamilton said he felt things would run smoother without Varona, while noting that Rubio and staff are working hard to get the mental-health agency back in good standing with not only the community, but also the agencies that provide needed funding.
The board did not discuss how they would replace Varona and Doyle, but they do not have to fill the vacated seats with Nogales representatives. Board members can be chosen from all over SEABHS’ four-county stretch.