Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Council chairman’s move raises concerns

Harrington vowed to help solve Prince George’s hospital crisis

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David C. Harrington’s move from Prince George’s County Council chairman to a state Senate seat has raised concerns about negotiations over the county’s financially ailing hospital system.

Harrington, 53, who pledged to work with County Executive Jack B. Johnson to solve the county’s hospital crisis, narrowly defeated former state delegate Rushern Baker last week to take over the District 47 seat left vacant after the death Jan. 12 of Sen. Gwendolyn Britt. The Democratic Central Committee voted 12 to 11 for Harrington, who will be sworn in Friday.

Councilman Samuel H. Dean (D-Dist. 6) of Mitchellville was selected Tuesday to succeed Harrington as council chairman through the year. Vice Chairwoman Marilynn Bland will remain second-in-command.

Neither Bland nor Dean returned calls for comment.

Harrington was elected chairman in December, sparking hope that his positive relationship with the county executive would bring a solution to the county hospital system, which officials said is struggling due to poor management and a large number of uninsured patients. Johnson’s clashes with the council over details of hospital operations have been blamed for unsuccessful efforts to reach an agreement in the past.

In his initial tenure as council chairman in 2005, Dean clashed with Johnson over charter amendments limiting Johnson’s power to award contracts without council approval. He was also among the council members who rejected the most recent hospital deal in the final days of last year’s session.

‘‘Sam is a strong leader, there’s no question,” said Peter Shapiro, a former council member who is now a political science professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. ‘‘But I’d advise them both to be less adversarial this time.”

Although a deal similar to last year’s state proposal for an independent authority to take over the Prince George’s hospital system is pending in the General Assembly, Johnson and Harrington had been working to negotiate a different package.

Sources said the county proposal would involve having private Catholic hospital corporation Ascension Health Care take over the county’s medical facilities.

Ascension is a St. Louis-based company that owns and runs more than 77 hospitals in the nation, including Providence Hospital in Washington. The company was also courted last year as officials tried to find a private buyer to take over the troubled county system from Dimensions Healthcare, which currently manages the system.

A spokeswoman for Ascension did not return calls for comment by press time.

Harrington would not confirm or deny that Ascension was the subject of negotiations.

‘‘I support the county initiative, which I expect will be coming out very, very soon,” Harrington said Tuesday.

But questions remain about whether the plan will have County Council support. Harrington had been the only council member intimately involved in the county plan, officials said.

Others were more positive that the executive and council would reach an accord this time.

‘‘Ever since last April, the executive and the council have been working together,” said John Erzen, spokesman for Johnson. ‘‘It’s not like all of a sudden the council is going to say, ‘We’re not dealing with you now.’”

Johnson campaigned heavily for Harrington to get the Senate seat instead of Baker, central committee members said, while many state senators lined up for Baker. Baker has twice unsuccessfully challenged Johnson for the county executive seat.

Many legislators said they were confident that the divisions in the selection process wouldn’t affect county efforts.

‘‘I think you’ll see everybody come together to address the priorities of the county,” said Del. Melony G. Griffith (D-Dist. 25) of Upper Marlboro. ‘‘... While we may not hold hands and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ we will work together to do what the citizens of Prince George’s County need and expect us to do.”

Some central committee members wondered whether the change on the state level would further complicate negotiations.

‘‘In 2007, the County Council, on which Harrington served, had a massive difference of opinion on operating the hospital,” said Alex Rodriguez, a central committee member who voted for Baker. ‘‘The question now becomes, will our new delegation be able to synchronize and come up with a solution?”

Harrington’s supporters believe the former Bladensburg mayor will be a unifying force in the state Senate, citing his history of constituent service.

‘‘Senator Britt was a dear friend, and every community meeting where I saw her, I saw David, too,” said Dottie E. McNeil, one of the central committee members who voted for Harrington. ‘‘Everything [about him] reminds me of what Senator Britt stood for.”

Harrington pledged to work in the Senate to find a solution to the hospital issue.

‘‘I’m optimistic,” he said.

A special election has not yet been scheduled to find a replacement for Harrington’s District 5 seat. The election could cost the county up to $1 million.

‘‘Even though it’s one district, it’s the full process: a primary, absentee ballots, judges, everything,” said Alisha L. Alexander, administrator for the county Board of Elections.

Staff Writer Alan Brody contributed to this report.

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