Court declares Northside Hospital’s operations can’t be kept secret


The Georgia Supreme Court on Thursday declared that records related to a corporation’s operation of Northside Hospital are public records, a decision that delighted open government proponents.

But the court declined to resolve a dispute between the hospital and an attorney who sought records of Northside’s $100 million acquisition of four physician practices. When Northside refused to turn over those documents, the lawyer, E. Kendrick Smith, sued the hospital.

After lower courts ruled against him, Smith appealed. On Thursday, the Supreme Court sent the case back, telling a trial judge to decide how closely related the acquisition was to the operation of the hospital’s facilities.

At the same time, the justices rejected Northside Hospital’s contention that it was not subject to the state’s sunshine laws.

“The corporation’s operation of the hospital and other leased facilities is a service it performs on behalf of the (county’s) agency, and so records related to that operation are public records,” Justice Nels Peterson wrote.

County commissioners created the Fulton County Hospital Authority in 1966 to provide health care throughout the county, Peterson noted. To that end, the authority opened Northside Hospital, which it operated for the next 25 years.

In 1991, however, the authority restructured that operation with a long-term lease of the hospital to be run by a private, nonprofit corporation — Northside Hospital Inc.

Now, the corporation argues that it doesn’t do anything on behalf of the county agency, and for this reason its records of health-care-related acquisitions aren’t subject to public inspection, the ruling said.

If the corporation’s “aggressive position were wholly correct, it may well cast serious doubt on the legality of the whole arrangement between the corporation and the agency,” Peterson wrote.

Richard Griffiths, board member of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said he was thrilled with the decision.

“Transparency is the best way to maintain accountability to the taxpayers who funded Northside and justifiably own it,” said Griffiths, former CNN vice president. “Government agencies can’t spin off private entities so they can avoid public records scrutiny. The key, big win is that Northside Hospital is a huge part of Fulton County and has to be open about its operations.”

Lee Echols, the hospital’s vice president of marketing, had a different take on the court’s decision.

“We are grateful that the Georgia Supreme Court has decisively rejected (Smith’s) claim that virtually every Northside Hospital document is a public record,” he said.

“The single goal of Mr. Smith has been to gain access, on behalf of a Northside Hospital competitor, to confidential business information that is clearly protected from disclosure,” Echols said. He added the hospital “looks forward to prevailing” as the case moves forward.

Atlanta lawyer Peter Canfield, who represents Smith, expressed confidence the hospital will not be able to keep its acquisition records under wraps.

In the lower courts, the hospital argued that none of its records were subject to disclosure, Canfield said. “That argument has now been emphatically rejected by the Supreme Court.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Getting ready for metro Atlanta’s next transportation revolution
Getting ready for metro Atlanta’s next transportation revolution

An electric driverless shuttle produced by EasyMile drives, as part of an experiment, in Paris on Friday. The fully electric autonomous vehicle is made by French company EasyMile, one of multiple French driverless car projects. AP/Christophe Ena Please seal this column in an envelope and give it a place on a back shelf for the next 20...
Cops: DUI crash leaves motorcyclist in hospital with life-threatening injuries
Cops: DUI crash leaves motorcyclist in hospital with life-threatening injuries

An alleged drunken driver is in the Cobb County jail after police say he hit a motorcyclist outside an apartment complex. Clarence Blackshear, 47, of Marietta, is accused of hitting Jacob Schirm, 20, of Alpharetta, outside the Silver Creek Apartments on Roswell Road about 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Marietta police Officer Jared Rakestraw said.  Blackshear...
Former Atlanta fire chief claims discrimination in civil rights suit
Former Atlanta fire chief claims discrimination in civil rights suit

A federal judge on Friday had questions about why Mayor Kasim Reed dismissed Atlanta’s fire chief in 2015, asking attorneys representing the city if the decision was based primarily on the contents of the chief’s controversial book or his insubordination. Fire chief Kelvin Cochran was terminated after he wrote and distributed a book that...
Recount shows Michael Julian Bond might retain Atlanta Council seat
Recount shows Michael Julian Bond might retain Atlanta Council seat

Michael Julian Bond will apparently retain his at-large council seat, but just barely, according to the unofficial results of a Fulton County vote recount on Friday. For the past couple of weeks, the outcome of the race wasn’t clear. First, there was supposed to be a recount, then a runoff, then a recount again. Earlier this week, election officials...
‘Political Rewind’ replay: Shirley Franklin on the ATL race for mayor

With former mayor Shirley Franklin in the house, today’s edition of GPB’s “Political Rewind” couldn’t help but start out with a look at the Atlanta mayor’s race between Keisha Lance Bottoms and Mary Norwood. Franklin repeated her contention that trust was a basic issue in the campaign &ndash...
More Stories