It is a story of male-female clashes, small-town politics and a little hospital struggling to stay alive. At the center are two newspaperwomen now being sued for libel.
Hildy Carrillo-Rivera and Lupe Acuna acknowledge they use the Calexico (Calif.) Chronicle, a 1,500-circulation weekly, to kick the establishment of this Mexican border town in the seat of the pants.
"My style is to be very blunt and to the point," said Ms. Carrillo-Rivera. "That's just how I am."
Now, the establishment is kicking back.
The administrator of 34-bed Calexico Hospital is suing the two for libel. The mayor accuses them of harming the town's good name. The Chamber of Commerce is unhappy they made a fuss about a chamber-sponsored map that showed caricatures of illegal immigrants climbing over the fence from Mexico.
But Ms. Acuna and Ms. Carrillo-Rivera say there would be far less fuss among Calexico's mostly male officialdom if the newspaper were run by two men.
"They just think we're two hysterical Mexican-American women," said Ms. Carrillo-Rivera, the paper's managing editor, reporter and columnist.
Ms. Acuna, the owner and publisher, said, "They can't accept the fact we've grown up and we're their equals."
Hospital Administrator Robert Trautman and others say the problem is not sex but rather the Chronicle's brand of shoot-from-the-hip journalism that blends fact, analysis and occasional insult.
Ms. Acuna and her sister, Dolores Lepe, bought the paper two years ago when its longtime editor moved away. Ms. Carrillo-Rivera was fresh from a failed bid for the City Council and looking for a way to stay active in politics. The paper has given them a forum to do that.
But the biggest pique prompted by the paper belongs to Mr. Trautman, an outsider hired in 1992 to rescue Calexico Hospital, the only hospital in this low-income, predominantly Hispanic community of 20,000.
After initially being hailed as the public hospital's savior, Mr. Trautman is suing the newspaper for running a steady stream of critical and belittling references about him and his female companion, whom he hired as marketing director.
Mr. Trautman has been called a "nincompoop" and "rat" in print.
To make matters stickier, Ms. Acuna and Ms. Carrillo-Rivera are on the hospital's board of directors.
Mr. Trautman said Ms. Acuna and Ms. Carrillo-Rivera have used the newspaper's clout to protect friends on the hospital payroll and thwart his efforts to recruit employees with medical specialties and greater competence.
"The reason our intensive-care unit is not open today is that the newspaper makes it impossible to recruit employees," said Mr. Trautman, who has 18 years of experience in hospital management in Los Angeles and Fresno and Orange County, Calif.
In one column, Ms. Carrillo-Rivera wrote: "Bobby has managed to rid the hospital of many Calexicans who have worked there for years and replaced them with white faces of people who do not know anything about this area."
Mr. Trautman denied this and added that new employees he has hired have received threatening phone calls at home. Ms. Carrillo-Rivera responded that she has been stalked by a mysterious man in a truck.
Ms. Acuna and Ms. Carrillo-Rivera are chronically on the short end of a 3-2 split in board votes. Despite that, they managed to persuade the board late last year to drop a $96,000-a-year contract with Mr. Trautman's management firm, run by his live-in companion from Diamond Bar, Calif.
If the journalists could get another vote, they said, they would fire Mr. Trautman from his $90,000-a-year job.
While the board feuds, the hospital, which for 40 years has lurched from one crisis to another, lingers near death. State health inspectors, who have the power to revoke the hospital's license, are dismayed over the chaotic management. The financially strapped hospital last year was forced to withdraw temporarily from the Medicare program while it attempted to correct problems with the facility's aging physical plant and medical records department (Feb. 15, 1993, p. 18).
On Feb. 25, the hospital had only five patients. Local physicians prefer to send their patients to hospitals in Brawley and El Centro, Calif.