Thursday, February 17, 2005 | OCEANSIDE – When you’ve got nearly $500 million in the bank-to do with what you want-you don’t have to give even token lip service to the politicians who helped you get the money. In fact, you can just thumb your nose at them.

That’s the enviable position the Palomar Pomerado Health District board of directors enjoys over Escondido City Council members as far as deciding where the system’s new hospital will be built. And, to some, that’s exactly what the politicians deserve.

Last fall, three of the present council members, including newcomer Sam Abed, used the $496 million bond measure, Proposition BB, as the crucial lever to wedge incumbent Tom D’Agosta, the bete noir of the Escondido establishment, out of his council seat. D’Agosta opposed BB vehemently, arguing that the language of the bond measure gave Palomar Pomerado Health leeway to build its massive, state-of-the art facility anywhere it chose – even outside Escondido, hub of the 800-square-mile district that stretches from San Marcos to Ramona, Valley Center and Poway.

That was heresy to Abed, council members Ron Newman and Ed Gallo, who also was running for re-election, and Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler. They branded D’Agosta as Escondido’s version of the anti-Christ , someone who was trying to force second-class health care down the craw of Escondido residents. A political action committee, Citizens for Better Health Care, joined in the crescendo. Led by former Escondido City Manager Ken Lounsbery and composed of virtually every power broker in the city, the committee poured an unprecedented amount of cash (more than $1.2 million) into the effort to win the necessary two-thirds’ voter support for the bond-and to discredit D’Agosta.

The group even managed to pry loose the patient mailing lists from at least two Escondido doctors, including the chairman of the Palomar Pomerado board, using the lists to solicit voter support and contributions. A Ramona resident has since filed suit, claiming that sharing the lists with a third party without patient approval violated a federal privacy act.

But, no try as hard as they could, the bond proponents could not dispute the fact that D’Agosta was right: Though the measure did provide that the district’s two existing hospitals, Palomar Medical Center in downtown Escondido and Pomerado Hospital in Poway, would be remodeled or expanded, it said nothing about where the new hospital would be built.

Not to worry. The group simply prevailed upon Michael Covert, the district’s CEO, to issue a pledge that the new facility indeed would be built in Escondido, whose residents’ taxes will pay the largest share, 52 percent, of the $496 million bond. Covert indeed did that, and the bond narrowly squeaked by on Nov. 2, thanks to heavy support from Escondido. Perhaps more importantly, D’Agosta was defeated. To the victors go the spoils.

Well, maybe not. Covert and the Palomar Pomerado board now have made it adamantly clear that the new hospital will not be built in downtown Escondido, but preferably in the city’s new Research and Technology park on the western edge of the city, a couple of miles from the present downtown enclave of doctors’ and dentists’ offices and other medical support groups.

That isn’t sitting well with some of the city’s biggest land owners, whose property values downtown could take a major hit without the benefit of the new hospital. So, back to the politicians. And, they responded. Four of the present council members have declared that the new facility should be built downtown, not somewhere out in the boondocks.

But, thanks to the $496 million safely in Palomar Pomerado’s control, what the Escondido politicians and power brokers want doesn’t count anymore. The district no longer needs them. In fact, the politicians are taking a huge risk. If the district doesn’t get its first choice in locations-the new business park-what’s to prevent it from going elsewhere with its hospital and some 3,000 jobs? To San Marcos, or Deer Springs? Absolutely nothing.

What goes around, it seems, indeed does come around. At least in Escondido.

Tom Nolan is a former journalist who worked as a reporter or editor at the Washington Daily News, Washington Star, Miami News, Escondido Times-Advocate and Los Angeles Herald-Examiner before joining The San Diego Union in 1981 as North County editor. Before retiring at the end of 2002, he spent five years as a member of that paper’s editorial board.

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