Monday, March 27, 2006 | I recently got a DVR from my cable provider that, my friends said, would allow me to fast-forward through all the commercials that rudely interrupt my three favorite television shows each week.

The problem is, of course, that I always forget that I can do that. So I end up watching the commercials even on the programs I’ve recorded.

And that would be fine except I have an unhealthy habit of critiquing commercials and trying to really understand what they’re trying to get me to do. So I can complain about them expertly.

One the other day, however, stumped me completely. It was an advertisement for Grossmont Hospital.

With incredibly soothing music in the background, a nice man talks about the hospital while scenes of nurses and doctors taking care of business flash on the screen:

Our nurses, staff and affiliated physicians don’t answer to shareholders, they answer to patients. And at a time like this, that’s a very comforting thought. Grossmont Hospital: Not for profit, but for people.

It was nice. Although I’ve never even seen the place, I liked Grossmont Hospital after I saw that commercial. But then, that annoying habit kicked in and I found myself wondering what the point of the commercial was.

Are they trying to get me to buy something? No. It’s a publicly owned hospital, it’s not trying to make a profit.

So I was baffled, it was just an ad for an ad’s sake. Am I wrong to say it’s pointless? Grossmont Hospital, as a different ad running concurrently explains, has been a public entity for more than 50 years. Of course, it’s operated by Sharp Healthcare, but that it’s taxpayer supported is a pretty well-established fact. Why do taxpayers need to shell out any more money to remind residents of that?

So it was pointless, I decided. But that doesn’t work for me because nothing is really pointless. Especially these ads. Since they were playing during my favorite show, they must be rather expensive.

Finally, I learned something new. I was talking to a source the other day and she mentioned that Grossmont Healthcare District – the entity that oversees Grossmont Hospital – had just put a $247 million bond measure on the June 6 ballot. Voters residing in the 750-square mile area that the hospital covers will be asked whether property owners in the district will fork over approximately $40 a year, depending on how nice their property is. The bond will pay for construction of more operating rooms, a better emergency room and new “life-safety systems.”

So now the random ads about how great Grossmont Hospital is make sense.

I called Grossmont and asked Marketing and Communications Manager Bruce Hartman about the ads.

“They’re part of our community awareness and education campaign,” he said. “Part of the initiative is to educate the community and also kind of set the stage for the G.O. bond initiative that we’re developing.”

And then he stopped. He said I would have to speak with the hospital’s CEO for more information. A “G.O.” bond, to be clear, is a general obligation bond.

Let’s stop for a second and think about this. The Grossmont Healthcare District is taxpayer supported. So if it’s paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to run primetime commercials for its hospital, it’s doing so with taxpayer funds.

By law, taxpayer funds cannot be used to “expressly advocate” in favor or against an issue on the ballot.

Local political consultant Larry Remer is currently facing a criminal trial for allegedly using about $5,000 in taxpayer funds to pay for a campaign he helped run for a local community college bond initiative. Filmmaker Rob Reiner has found himself under investigation for running ads with taxpayer dollars that may have more than a slightly positive effect on a proposition he is supporting.

State Sen. Gloria Romero told USA Today recently that Reiner’s work may not be illegal, but it certainly doesn’t pass the smell test.

Do Grossmont’s ads pass the smell test or do they expressly advocate for approval of the June ballot proposition?

Well, they certainly don’t hurt the cause. Remember, even I kind of liked Grossmont Hospital after I saw those ads. And the timing is interesting.

And, of course, we have the marketing director saying the ads “set the stage” for the bond measure.

What does CEO Michele Tarbet say?

“No.”

She said the ads were bought merely to mark the hospital’s 50-year anniversary, which, since Grossmont was built in 1955, would have actually been last year. But we won’t go down that road. Let’s see what else she has to say.

“The ads had been running long before there was an initiative to even advocate for,” Tarbet said. “Look at the ads. They don’t even mention the proposition. Those ads don’t say to vote yes or no on anything.”

Tarbet said Grossmont was initially planning to put the bond measure on the ballot in November but decided not to because polling had showed that it was not a good time to put something on the ballot.

“And if you recall,” Tarbet said, “most propositions failed in November.”

So, let’s get the timeline straight: Grossmont wants to raise more than $225 million. So it does some polling to see if voters will support a bond measure of that size in the November election. Officials determine that the measure would probably lose. Then they buy a bunch of ads during my – and presumably other people’s – favorite shows. Now, polling indicates that the measure is likely to pass so Grossmont officials approve putting the measure on the ballot two weeks before the ads stop running on television.

Barry Jantz, the CEO of Grossmont Healthcare District, called me to clear things up. The ads, he said, do “set the stage” for the bond initiative. But not in the illegal sense. Grossmont officials asked experts to review the ads closely to make sure, Jantz said.

The ads set the stage for the board of directors of the Grossmont Healthcare District, Jantz said.

“The ads provide information to the public that in turn gives the information to the board of directors on whether they support a bond initiative,” Jantz said. “It has nothing to do with getting the initiative passed.”

Does that pass your smell test? The ads, along with an extensive account of the benefits of passage of the bond initiative are all right here on the Sharp Grossmont Hospital Web site.

To be clear, although the Web site is unapologetically designed to generate support for the bond measure, it definitely doesn’t actually tell us to vote no or yes on anything.

Scott Lewis oversees Voice’s commentary section. Please contact him directly at

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