SGMC breaks with cardiologists

Ross Berry 

VALDOSTA — South Georgia Medical Center may once again be looking for a new CEO. 

Chief Executive Officer Ross Berry is ready to walk away, ceding the helm of the ship he was hired to right just 15 months ago. 

The Hospital Authority of Valdosta and Lowndes County, that governs SGMC, announced Thursday it will meet 8:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 10. 

The public notice of the called meeting indicates the panel will discuss personnel matters in a closed-door meeting. 

The state's Open Meetings Act requires officials to first meet in open public session before voting to go into the closed executive session. Officials are not allowed to take binding votes while in executive sessions. Any action requiring a vote of the governing body must take place in open, public session, and the public must be made aware of what is under consideration. 

Berry waded into troubled waters when he terminated the contracts of Dr. Joe Johnson and Dr. Randall Brown, cardiothoracic surgeons at SGMC. 

While the reasons for that decision were not publicly stated at the time, in a letter — which The Valdosta Daily Times obtained from two independent sources — Berry's attorney states, "After almost a year of attempting to enforce the contractual obligation of the CVI surgeons to abide by the Physician By-Laws and report to STS for quality monitoring as well as discovering non-FDA and IFU approved equipment and medical supplies in the operating room, the physicians were terminated without cause, with Berry only to be coerced into allowing the surgeons to work out ninety day notice while an attempted new contract was negotiated." 

Berry is saying the Hospital Authority is not allowing him to do his job and has thwarted his attempts to fix problems, enforce contracts and correct disruptive behavior among medical staff. 

The CEO also alleges he was required to attend an Authority meeting for which no public notice was given.

Attorney Roy Barnes wrote, "forcing Berry to attend a meeting such as this is a violation of the Open Meetings Act." 

Berry is asking for three years of his base salary, a lump sum bonus pay-out of $325,000, his attorney fees and a non-disparagement agreement.

Berry is represented by Barnes, the former governor of Georgia, who said in a letter to the Hospital Authority that Berry's situation at the hospital has become untenable. 

The letter outlines several other areas where the CEO said the Authority prevented him from doing his job and also detailed allegations made regarding Berry's family. 

Barnes wrote, "Under these circumstances and other events which will be disclosed, if necessary, in an appropriate legal forum, Berry sees no way he can continue his employment.

"Berry contends, and I agree, the Authority has materially breached his employment agreement and caused damage to him." 

Barnes has given the Hospital Authority until Aug. 17 to make a decision on the separation agreement. 

Hospital Authority Chairman Sam Allen confirmed the purpose of the called meeting Friday morning is "to review the Barnes letter and determine whether to accept the resignation and terms for Berry or appoint an interim."

Allen said the Authority is not prepared to publicly comment on the allegations in the Barnes' letter at this time.

While state law allows personnel matters and litigation to be discussed behind closed doors, it does not require it.

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