Watsonville hospital board appoints interim CEO; search for new leader could take nine months

The Pajaro Valley Healthcare District board of directors meets
The Pajaro Valley Healthcare District board of directors meets Wednesday.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Matko Vranjes, the current chief operating officer of Watsonville Community Hospital, will be its interim CEO as the hospital’s board of directors embarks on a search to replace Steven Salyer. Between Salyer’s sudden resignation and the impact of recent storms, the board is also looking to adjust the timeline on the hospital’s strategic planning process.

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Watsonville Community Hospital appointed an interim CEO on Wednesday and began the search for a new leader, days after current CEO Steven Salyer abruptly announced his resignation.

The Pajaro Valley Healthcare District board of directors appointed Matko Vranjes, the hospital’s current chief operating officer, as interim CEO effective April 11. Salyer’s final day on the job is April 10. Salyer told Lookout he’s leaving the hospital for family reasons.

Salyer’s sudden departure comes as the hospital had just started a strategic planning process this month. The strategic plan helps guide the hospital in deciding how it will serve the community.

For example, through a series of meetings and outreach with community stakeholders, the hospital identified a behavioral health unit as a crucial need in the area. Salyer previously told Lookout that the hospital won’t go forward with adding services until the strategic planning process is completed.

Initially, officials from Chartis, the health care advisory firm hired by the hospital to develop the strategic plan, proposed implementing the plan in little more than a month, by April 26.

After steering Watsonville Community Hospital through its transition to public ownership during nearly two years at the...

But with recent storms causing widespread impacts on the hospital’s surrounding community and Salyer’s departure, directors Marcus Pimentel and Tony Nuñez worried there would not be enough time by April 26 to allow for community participation in the strategic planning process. So on Wednesday, hospital directors asked Chartis to propose new, extended timelines at their next meeting, March 29.

“We’re going to have to make some really difficult decisions about our service lines. How we address those will have to involve these partners that are stretched thin right now,” said Nuñez. “I do want to move forward; at the same time we need to be mindful about what the state of our community is.”

Outgoing Watsonville Community Hospital CEO Steven Salyer
Outgoing Watsonville Community Hospital CEO Steven Salyer.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Pimentel said it’s not yet clear what the timeline will look like for the strategic plan.

Salyer, who was hired in July 2021, came to Watsonville Community Hospital just months before it declared bankruptcy, and he helped it navigate the transition to public ownership.

“We worked hard to stabilize the organization during the most difficult time in its history and we achieved tremendous success,” he said. “I poured my heart and soul into this community and I will greatly miss the wonderful people of Pajaro Valley. I am so proud of the leadership team, hospital staff, physicians, community members, donors and government entities that led to our success.”

Directors gave Vranjes — who has worked at the hospital for 31 years and was raised in Watsonville — a standing ovation in a conference room on the hospital campus Wednesday.

Pimentel said Vranjes’ appointment “brings us a lot more faith and credibility in that we’re having the right lens on the input of the strategic plan from our executive team.”

An interim COO hasn’t yet been named.

Search for a new CEO

The hospital directors also launched a search committee Wednesday to find the next CEO. The directors appointed Pimentel and board chair John Friel to serve on the subcommittee.

Pajaro Valley Healthcare District board of directors chair John Friel
Pajaro Valley Healthcare District board of directors chair John Friel.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Pimentel told Lookout that there is no set timeline for appointing a CEO; however, based on typical search times, conducting interviews and writing contracts, among other steps, it could be up to nine months.

He said the first six months or so will include closed-session meetings. At points where decisions and actions need to be made by the board, it will open meetings to the public. The directors will be working with the hospital staff on recruiting candidates and working with hospital stakeholders on the methodology for the search and the kind of candidate the hospital should appoint.

Next, they’ll start holding interview panels with the top candidates.

“I would think we’re probably in a July/August time frame when we’re bringing the final candidate proposal to the board and public,” Pimentel said. “Then once the board decides, ‘Yes, that person is it,’ then there’s negotiations on a contract, then there’s the duration of them giving notice to where they’re working now, and moving here. So it could be a nine-month begin-to-end process. Nine months from today is more credible, but we’re going to look for every opportunity to shorten that up.”

In the meantime, Pimentel said the board is confident it can move forward with the strategic planning process with Vranjes as interim CEO.

“He genuinely creates an atmosphere of trust, respect, and openness — and that’s a leadership quality that I’m looking forward to keeping and helping us guide us forward in our strategic planning, and our engagement with all of our community partners,” he said.


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