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Why John Wiley Price and Dallas Morning News are to blame for Parkland CEO search

Eric Celeste
Parkland Memorial Hospital
The process to find a new CEO for Parkland has cost $400,000 so far. Photo by Conner Howell
John Wiley Price
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price is a grandstander, but he may have a point (just not the one he's saying publicly). JohnWileyPrice.com
Parkland Chairwoman Debbie Branson
Parkland board of managers chairwoman Deborah Branson expects to be grilled today by Commissioner Price. Dallas South News
Larry Gentilello
Much of the media scrutiny started with Parkland whistleblower Larry Gentilello, who now works at a private hospital in California. Photo by Marissa Rocke Photography

I’m fairly torn on Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. Actually, I always feel that way about him — at once annoyed at whatever in-front-of-camera stunt he’s pulling and admiring of how expertly he pulls it off.

This time, I’m torn about his choice of target: the Parkland Memorial Hospital’s board of managers, the folks charged with finding a new CEO of the embattled institution. Today, Price promises another public searing of board chairwoman Deborah Branson on why the hospital has “reopened” its CEO search after moving on from the four “finalists” it interviewed last year. (And why the process, which has cost $400,000 so far, will be continuing.)

I’ve written about this before, so go there to read all the background links, because I’m not going to rehash everything here. (What is this, a Texas Monthly cover story?) But it’s important for you to understand why this is happening, because it’s really about southern Dallas politics and the mainstream media’s inability to discuss itself honestly. Oh, yeah, and hospitals. A little bit about that too.

First, Price is indeed pissed off. That’s not an act. He’s mad, as we’ve noted before, because the former chairwoman was his seconder and someone who kept him abreast of all goings-on. Totally understandable. Hard to rule a governing body — covertly, overtly, any ertly — if you don’t know what said body is up to.

On one level, this seems like another attention-grabbing move by Price (who has always expertly played the media game) just to remind everyone that when the Big Dog is in the room, it needs to be fed. You keep him in the loop, make sure he has input and the public scolding will go away. (He may have met his match in Branson, who is tough as a tree root, but we’ll see.)

But talk to folks in southern Dallas — folks who are no fans of Price right now, let me assure you — and they say there is merit to this questioning, primarily because there is a feeling that the Dallas Citizens Council has been controlling this through backroom dealings. Says one Parkland employee with a stake in this search: “Just because it’s JWP making this fuss — yes, he’s ridiculous sometimes, and he’s way too old to be wearing cornrows and no socks — that doesn’t mean there isn’t a point to be made. And that’s that some of those Citizens Council folks don’t want a black CEO at Parkland.”

Now, I don’t know that I believe that. But the person who told me that is not insane, very politically connected, someone to take seriously. Just so you know, that feeling is out there in the black community. You don’t have to agree with it. But you’re a fool if you don’t acknowledge it. (See? Torn.)

The other pressure here we should note is from the Dallas Morning News. In an editorial over the weekend, the paper agreed with Price, saying that Parkland needs to be more forthcoming, writing:

Parkland is in a tough place as it tries to balance a delicate leadership search with attempts to bring the hospital into federal patient health and safety compliance. That is precisely why Parkland needs to communicate instead of retreating into a shell.

It then goes on to ask very specific questions that you should read, if only to see how a sophist constructs an argument. Parkland’s response was to send a long letter rebutting the editorial and its premise. It included the email correspondence between the editorial writer and the board spokesperson, noting that every single answer could be found in this November 2012 sentence from a Parkland press release:

Branson cautioned, however, that it is possible the Board could choose to continue examining other candidates once this process is complete.

I’ve been critical of Parkland’s PR strategy, but I think the hospital is dead on here. The idea that these were finalists, or that they said the CEO would come from this group, is completely a construction of the media. No question. (Not that the paper will every admit that. It has become part of the fabric of their story. You can’t pull that thread back out.)

But that’s not the most important point. My response would be, well, if we’re all into being transparent, let’s talk about the real reason those candidates aren’t going to work: It’s because of the DMN.

As noted in the earlier column, the DMN is on a journalistic jihad against the hospital. Has been for a long time. And some jihads — like this one, I believe — are justified. But that doesn’t mean you want to volunteer to babysit for the family that is under said jihad, no matter the hourly rate.

I talked to community members who were part of the interview process with the four CEO candidates. They said two huge concerns for all of them were the plan to build the new hospital — everyone realized the money wasn’t there — and the paper’s monthly front-page ass whipping. So if you’re going to ask those questions in your editorial, you must acknowledge that you know that you are a large part of the answer. No one worthwhile is going to take this job until the oversight group gives the hospital a thumbs up, the long-range budget is figured out and the media heat subsides.

None of this means that Branson and the board shouldn’t be held accountable. It just means that the folks doing so — Price and the DMN — need to be honest about why they’re haranguing Parkland. Neither should have a problem doing so. They both love transparency.

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