Two days after a new CalOptima board was put in place last week, it moved behind closed doors in an act that hasn’t been clearly explained and according to a state legal expert may have violated California’s open-meeting law.

The nearly 1½-hour executive session on May 3 apparently discussed board Chairman Ed Kacic, who has been at odds with other members of the board, including Orange County Supervisor Janet Nguyen.

Nguyen has worked successfully in recent months to revamp the board of directors to give herself and industry representatives more control of the federal and state financed $1.4-billion organization that provides health coverage for more than 400,000 low income and elderly Orange County residents.

But Kacic and two other board members still remain.

Even before the CalOptima board went into executive session, there were rumors in the meeting room that the new board would remove Kacic as chairman.

Kacic was excluded from the closed meeting, but board Vice Chairman Jim McAleer, another of the holdover board members, said afterwards in a telephone interview: “I can tell you that as of now, Ed is chairman of the board, and I am vice chair. More than that, I can’t say.” Participants in executive sessions aren’t allowed to discuss what happened.

However, at one point during the public session that followed the confidential meeting, Kacic and McAleer both stepped outside the meeting room for a few minutes.

Noting their absence, Nguyen made an apparent joking reference to what happened in executive session.

“Oh, let’s vote them out,” said Nguyen to chuckles from other board members. “Second,” came the male voice of another board member.

Kacic said he was told before the closed-door meeting by CalOptima lawyer Gary Crockett that he would “need to leave the meeting.” But Kacic said he didn’t want to say more until he had time to learn more himself about the meeting.

The closed meeting itself probably was illegal, said Terry Francke, general counsel to Californians Aware, a statewide nonprofit that promotes open government issues and provides expert advice on laws covering public meetings and access to government records.

He said the Ralph M. Brown Act, the 59-year-old state law that requires most government boards to act in public, doesn’t allow closed door sessions to discuss leadership positions, such as board chairman or vice chairman. If the meeting wasn’t legal, details of the internal discussions must be publicly disclosed.

The issue that supposedly justified the CalOptima closed meeting concerned two “potential claims,” according to the board agenda. Francke said a much more specific description of the issue had to have been given to the public before the closed meeting took place.

“That’s not sufficient explanation,” he said. “The idea is the public is entitled to know” the basis of the claims, such as an individual filing a claim or a disaster or accident that has left the public agency open to claims.

The closed-door meeting comes as CalOptima, which in the past has received high marks for the way it is run, is dealing with the loss of at least a dozen executives to private industry or better-paying government positions in recent months.

Divisions on the board of directors apparently are so severe that the outside firm hired to find a replacement for former CalOptima CEO Richard Chambers told the board during its public meeting that it will be interviewing each board member to try reaching a consensus on what attributes they seek in a new CEO.

Nguyen wants someone with experience running a government agency, while others want someone who has a thorough understanding of how large health plans are run and a command of the major issues, including the new national health care law, which is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“Learning curve is too steep if they don’t have health plan experience,” said one comment. “Healthcare experience a high priority — far too complex of a business — learning curve would be too steep,” said another.

In the past, CalOptima has been cited for being well run, but all Medi-Cal plans throughout the state are monitored quarterly by state and federal officials for the quality of services they provide. If complaints begin to rise from those who receive the services, CalOptima could be put on a monthly monitoring program.

“Enhanced” monthly monitoring is being conducted for health plans in four counties — Los Angeles, Kern, Alameda and Fresno — according to federal officials.

The state has ordered a financial analysis in a fifth county, Ventura, where a report should be released this summer.

The CalOptima board member comments about what was needed in a new CEO referred directly to the top management losses the agency has incurred.

The new CEO should be “able to rebuild image of organization that has been significantly tarnished recently,” said one comment. Others said the new CEO should be “able to quickly restore sense of confidence before everyone leaves.”

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