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Hospital board candidates square off at Tiger Bay forum

Candidates for the Sarasota County Public Hospital Board attended a forum June 20 hosted by the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club.
Candidates for the Sarasota County Public Hospital Board attended a forum June 20 hosted by the Sarasota Tiger Bay Club.
Photo by Jim DeLa
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Four candidates vying for seats on the Sarasota County Hospital Board defended their positions on priorities for Sarasota Memorial Hospital, medical autonomy, and the role of the board itself at a Tiger Bay Club forum June 20.

The forum, the second hosted by the Tiger Bay Club, was specifically for candidates in two races – the Seat 2 (at-large), and the Central District Seat 1 races. The Sarasota Tiger Bay Club is a "non-partisan political organization that was formed to foster an understanding of public issues," according to its website.

The forum was an all-Republican affair. Neither of the Democratic candidates, John Lutz in the Seat 2 race, or Vicki Lynn Nighswander in the Seat 1 race attended. Both of the recent write-in candidates, Donna Hurlock for Seat 2, and Emilio Carlesimo in the Seat 1 race, were absent.

All Sarasota County voters may cast ballots in all hospital board races, regardless of districts, according to the Sarasota County Supervisor of Elections office.

The Tiger Bay Club asked several prepared questions, including how candidates would manage the hospital’s recent expansion and potential growth.

Sarah Lodge, the current chair of the board who is running for reelection for Seat 1, said the hospital must grow to serve the citizens. 

“We have so many people moving into this town on a daily basis,” she said. “Expanding and growing so that we can actually treat the people that we have here in our community is huge.” 

Her opponent, Tanya Parus, was more cautious. 

“I think there's a time and a place for development,” she said. “We need to take a look back and see if the growth is actually sustainable.” 

Parus said the board must be able to justify spending tax dollars. 

“Do we really need these resources? That's one of the things that I think I would really want to see, is those numbers and see how this is impacting every citizen of Sarasota County.”

Dr. Stephen Guffanti, a retired emergency room physician running for Seat 2, told the audience he’s concerned about growth reducing the level of care. Guffanti has been openly critical of the care he received at SMH after he contracted COVID during the pandemic.

“One of the things you find, with that kind of growth, is that you need to constantly revisit your systems, because if you don't, you'll find that you're dropping more balls than when you were smaller,” he said. “But those balls that drop, sometimes they kill you.”

Parus and Guffanti were grilled by the audience with questions about their alliance with the “Medical Freedom” ticket, which formed during the pandemic after disagreements over policies including mask mandates, vaccinations and alternative care. 

Parus read her definition of medical freedom as “ensuring that individuals have a right to make informed decisions about their own health, health care without undue influence or coercion.” 

Guffanti argued that doctors need to be allowed to have differing opinions. “SMH just needs doctors on its board who can point out when its medical freedom policy isn't being upheld and redirects staff,” he said.

Parus continued her criticism of SMH's policies during the pandemic, "When you're coerced ... 'Hey, you're going to lose your job if you don't get vaxxed up, or don't bother coming in if you're not going to wear that mask.' That is not medical freedom," she said.

Meanwhile, Lodge and Seat 2 candidate Kevin Cooper argued that the board’s responsibility is more fiscal than medical. 

“If the community becomes frustrated with the doctors and the quality of care … I don't want the answer to be well, ‘go talk to the board,” Cooper said. 

“It's important to have independence, and checks and balances. And it is important to have money, because the business of the board is the business of the hospital, and not the practice of medicine.”

Lodge echoed that sentiment after the forum. 

“The board's role does not oversee the medicine,” she said. “Now, we oversee patient quality. We get an update on that all the time. As far as medicine goes, that is not our role.”

After the forum, Parus, who operates an alternative medicine family clinic in Venice, expressed frustration with the audience’s reactions to her answers. 

“I wasn't concerned about the questions, just the eye-rolling,” she said. “It's not really the nice thing to do. It's just a respect thing, you know, that kind of people should be a little more kind.” 

The next chance for voters to meet these candidates will be July 11, at a forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Sarasota County.

The forum is set for 5:30-7 p.m. at the Jacaranda Library, 4143 Woodmere Park Blvd. in Venice. The forum will be followed by a 30-minute candidate meet-and-greet for those attending in person. Registration is required and is open on the league’s website.

This article has been updated to correct that all county voters can cast ballots for every open seat regardless of district.



Jim DeLa

Jim DeLa is the digital content producer for the Observer. He has served in a variety of roles over the past four decades, working in television, radio and newspapers in Florida, Colorado and Hawaii. He was most recently a reporter with the Community News Collaborative, producing journalism on a variety of topics in Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties; and as a digital producer for ABC7 in Sarasota.

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