The day after Barbara Price was sworn in to help oversee Alameda County's rapidly collapsing public health care system, five trustees on the board walked out.
Nine years later, Price is stepping down from her seat on the governing board of the Alameda County Medical Center, which still faces hurdles but is no longer in danger of disintegrating.
"After nine years the operation is stable and we have good leadership," Price said. "It's not been easy."
ACMC Trustee Ilene Weinreb also announced her retirement at the same time as Price, but reconsidered after being asked by District 2 Supervisor Richard Valle to continue on the board if the board approves an extension past the nine-year term limit.
Price and Weinreb were appointed during some of the darkest days of the medical center, which includes Highland and Fairmont hospitals, John George Psychiatric Pavilion and clinics in Oakland, Hayward and Newark. ACMC was on its ninth chief executive in a decade and faced a crushing deficit.
"There's no accountability at the medical center. It's unacceptable. We have to rein it back in," former Alameda County Supervisor Gail Steele said at the 2003 meeting when Price was sworn in.
Price's firm, Alameda-based PK Consultants, advised the Port of Oakland on real estate issues for the harbor dredging project, among others. She sat on the Antioch City Council from 1984 to 1992 and was active in shaping health care policy.
The first six months on ACMC's board were the most precarious as trustees tried to stave off a shut down.
"They walked through a number of mine fields," District 5 Supervisor Keith Carson said.
The trustees oversaw multiple rounds of layoffs and cost-cutting in order to whittle down a $45.7 million deficit and a nearly $200 million debt to the county.
Even after the initial crisis had passed, a 2005 grand jury report criticized the board for being ineffectual, lacking in leadership and incapable of reigning in costs. Price shot back in the press, calling the grand jury's criticisms inaccurate urban myths.
In 2006, a John George patient strangled one of the doctors to death, prompting a lawsuit and the near loss of millions in federal funding for deficiencies. Problems in 2004 at ACMC had already come close to costing the center the federal Medicare and Medicaid services funding, without which the center likely would not have survived.
The most important move the board made was appointing the current chief executive, Wright Lassiter who put together a skilled management team, former SEIU Local 1021 researcher Bradley Cleveland said. He worked closely with Price during budget and wage negotiations before he left the union in 2010. Stability was key, he said, "and the board has supported that stability."
A half-cent sales tax, approved by voters in 2004, also finally helped turn around the fortunes of ACMC by providing about $75 million a year.
. In addition, the medical center must become more competitive to attract patients after the Affordable Care Act reforms kick in, giving people more options.
ACMC is operating in the black and has invested nearly $4 million to renovate and expand services at the Newark Wellness Center. A new nine-story $668 million acute care tower is being built.
"We stuck with it and wouldn't accept no for an answer," Price said.
District 3 Supervisor Wilma Chan's predecessor Alice Lai-Bitker appointed Price. Chan was unavailable to comment on when she will replace the outgoing trustee.