A judge has issued a tentative ruling calling for the Los Angeles City Council to reconsider its decision allowing a San Fernando Valley hospital to expand, handing a victory to the union activists and neighborhood groups that had criticized the project.
Superior Court Judge Thomas McKnew said the 15-member council used the wrong voting process when it approved a $180-million expansion at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, a facility that treated 17 injured passengers in the Sept. 12 Metrolink train crash in Chatsworth.
Eight of the council’s 15 members voted last November to overturn a Planning Commission decision approving the expansion. The project went forward anyway because city law requires 10 votes to reverse the commission.
In his written tentative ruling, McKnew said the council must take up the matter again. His final ruling is expected Thursday.
Roughly half the 101 new hospital beds planned under the expansion would go for emergency room patients. Still, the hospital’s proposal has run into a buzz saw of union and neighborhood politics, with the Service Employees International Union arguing that the hospital needs to do more to address the effect of its project on traffic and parking.
SEIU represents healthcare workers and has been in a labor dispute with the chain that operates Providence Holy Cross. In Los Angeles and other parts of the West Coast, the union has used environmental laws to gain greater leverage over hospital chains by filing challenges to their construction projects.
Councilman Richard Alarcon, who has sided with critics of the hospital project, said Providence Holy Cross should stop all work on the expansion until its legal issues are resolved. Alarcon also said that if the ruling becomes final, he would find the votes to force the hospital to prepare an environmental impact report, delaying the project by at least a year.
“Providence Holy Cross has been saying this is about healthcare, when it fact it’s about the California Environmental Quality Act,” he said. “I believe this judge has put this in the right perspective.”
Tim McOsker, a lawyer representing Providence Holy Cross, said his client was weighing its next steps and waiting for the judge’s final order. The hospital has already begun construction on the expansion project and could file an appeal, McOsker said.
“We still have the need for [hospital] beds in the Valley,” he said. “Providence will need to evaluate the best and quickest way to bring these additional beds on line.”
McOsker was one of several lobbyists to represent the hospital during last year’s council debate.
The SEIU and the pro-labor Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy teamed up with a handful of neighborhood groups to argue against the project. The alliance also helped organize Community Advocates for a Responsible Expansion, a group that is now a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
Although he did not rule on the environmental process used by Providence Holy Cross, McKnew warned that the report prepared for the project “may not be the appropriate document.”
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who appoints each planning commissioner, toured Providence Holy Cross in the wake of the Metrolink crash and met injured passengers.
On Friday, the mayor held a $1,000-per-ticket fundraiser at the law offices of Mayer Brown LLC, a firm that represents the hospital chain in the case.
Two days later, Villaraigosa attended a fundraiser held by various liberal community organizers, including some with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. Two of the event’s co-hosts, Roxana Tynan and Patricia Castellanos, have registered as lobbyists at City Hall.