PASCAGOULA -- It's a step in the right direction, said people in the audience -- county officials and hospital retirees.
For the first time, the county's hospital system board meeting was open to the public and media Wednesday.
It felt like history in the making.
For decades, Singing River Health System leaders met in secret, but for many of those years the system was self-supporting and asked for very little county tax money.
Then in early 2014, the system that includes the county's two hospitals announced something had been going on that wasn't right. It had been stringing along millions in debt and calling it revenue and, as a result, SRHS was near bankruptcy. The fixed-benefits pension plan for hundreds of employees was a target and the outrage that followed culminated in state Sen. Brice Wiggins championing a law that would open hospital meetings, at least partly, to the public.
Wednesday it happened. And the audience was filled with reporters, county officials, hospital retirees and the curious.
Retiree Pablo Garcia said, "We didn't know 14 months ago we'd still be getting our pension. Now we're talking about transparency and we have an open meeting."
He said retirees still don't know how much money is in the pension. But with the open Board of Trustees meeting, "they'll have to be more careful before they act," he said. "And they are more accountable."
Irby Tillman said he would like to see public comment. He wanted to know how the hospital system can have 53 days' cash on hand yet have a profit of only $680,000. He also wanted to know when the retirees can see the numbers that led to the settlement in federal court -- figures attorneys leading the mediation got from SRHS.
But earlier in the day, county Board of Supervisors President Melton Harris said nowhere in the law does it say the hospital leaders have to entertain public comment.
"Public comment is a privilege, but not a requirement," he said. "Our (Board of Supervisors) meetings are getting to where we are sort of battered by it. These board meetings are not a Q&A."
The trustees reported progress on its days of operating cash on hand, a requirement from companies that hold the bonds or the note for SRHS debt.
Chancery Clerk Josh Elderidge attended Wednesday's meeting.
"It does appear they're making some progress," he said. "I'm here because for the last two years, this has been the biggest issue of the county. The more transparency the hospital provides, the more faith the people will have in the information they're receiving."
There was a time when SRHS had 18 days' worth of cash on hand. Now they're at 53. The bond covenants require 60 to 62, but according to the CFO, hospitals their size have 100 days' worth or more.