Jackson County

Reaction to secret SRHS meeting: Frustration, concern

PASCAGOULA -- Retirees said they were surprised Tuesday when the county's attorney, Billy Guice, announced he believes they will be required to take the federal settlement -- with no way to opt out of a class that hasn't even been established.

But they had more to say about last week's secret meeting between Guice; Chancery Judge Breland Hilburn, who's presiding over lawsuits against Singing River Health System; attorneys for SRHS; attorneys Jim Reeves and Matthew Mestayer leading the federal settlement and representing a few of the retirees; SRHS Trustee Scott Taylor; special master Britt Singletary; fiduciary agent Steven Simpson; and hospital counsel Celeste Oglesby.

Within an hour of the meeting, Hilburn had stopped litigation against SRHS and cancelled a hearing scheduled for the next day, during which he was to be asked to step down, according to motions by two attorneys for 200 of the retirees. Those two attorneys were not included in the secret meeting and they have now appealed to the state Supreme Court.

'Such an odd case'

Three women standing outside the Jackson County's Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday said they didn't know what they would do and were surprised by the revelations. They are among the 200 pushing in court for answers to the pension failure. It was attorneys for a smaller group of retirees, about a dozen, who fashioned the settlement in federal court.

"This has been such an odd case," retiree Kitty Aguilar said. "They've done a lot of things that are unexpected. There is a problem with these secret meetings. Our attorneys were not there.

"The whole thing, from the beginning, looks like a fast track down one road, without consideration of all the clients," she said.

Her husband, Cisco Aguilar, reiterated why the group of retirees opposes the settlement -- there's no additional money in it; it lets the hospital administration off the hook for funding decisions and lying about the plan; the plan hinges on the hospital's ability to perform; and there are no guarantees the money will last.

Two well-known and respected retired doctors attended the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday -- pediatrician Dr. Matt Kuluz and neurosurgeon Dr. John McCloskey. They are not in the pension plan.

"We're concern citizens," Kuluz said.

"Very concerned," he and McCloskey added.

McCloskey said, "The secret meeting is beyond " then shook his head. "That's it."

Quizzed by supervisors

Supervisor Ken Taylor had a string of questions for Guice, while the attorney was being so forthcoming at the public meeting. In answer, Guice said the following:

-- "It makes sense" not to allow an opt out. "You shouldn't have different results going to different people," having some in the class getting more than others.

-- He advocates a website that tracks the balance of the pension money so anyone can see updated figures on it, instead of keeping people begging in the dark.

-- Attorneys for the 200, Earl Denham and Harvey Barton, had severed their case from the others and therefore weren't included in meetings.

-- Funds in the pension plan have multiple sources -- some are in bank accounts, some are liquid investments and some are in a real estate trust -- that could take a long time to unwind.

-- The plan needs $191 million in assets now to be viable for the life of all pensioners. It has considerably less.

-- When asked by Ken Taylor what will happen if the state Supreme Court is sympathetic to the appeal of the 200 retirees over the secret meeting, Guice said the high court could replace Hilburn.

-- The county and SRHS have never endorsed the $6.4 million in attorney fees set up by Reeves' settlement.

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