IT SHOULD HAVE been a routine inquiry; instead, it required a major effort to learn that Howard University's trustees have reaffirmed their commitment to enter into a partnership with the D.C. government to build a $400 million, 250-bed hospital complex on the grounds of the former D.C. General Hospital in Southeast Washington. It finally took a question from D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) during a public forum last Monday to get Hassan Minor, Howard's senior vice president, to acknowledge the decision, which was made last weekend. Until Mr. Graham's intervention, the university had refused to disclose the board's action to the media. Even with Mr. Minor's reluctant confirmation, he declined to release wording of the trustees' resolution or to discuss the vote, telling The Post's Susan Levine: "We don't do that. Our resolutions are not public." Which brings us to the point of today's editorial.

Howard University is a private university, and thus is accountable to its board of trustees, alumni and student body -- and, of course, to Congress for its annual appropriation. However, Howard's decision to enter into a partnership with the D.C. government -- a relationship that calls upon D.C. taxpayers to put up at least $201 million for construction of the proposed state-of-the-art National Capital Medical Center -- changes the parameters of the 138-year-old university's involvement with the city. For that reason David A. Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the D.C. Council's Health Committee, which must vote on the hospital project, said of the trustees' decision: "I just want to see specifically what they have approved. I want to see what they have done in writing." It is the council's right and duty to demand that kind of information and more.

The Howard-D.C. deal would require the city to take $100 million from the national tobacco settlement and $100 million from an anticipated budget surplus in fiscal 2009. The city, in other words, would be going out on a limb fiscally to help Howard own and operate a top-level trauma unit, research divisions and a professional office building. Responsible city lawmakers will want to know if Howard has the capacity to meet its financial obligations under the deal as well as the ambitious performance goals necessary to make the venture financially viable. It is expected that the center would run multimillion-dollar deficits for several years. City lawmakers, as stewards of the District's purse strings, cannot settle for coy assurances that the university would be able to cover financial shortfalls.

The mayor has said the city would not subsidize the new hospital. The council -- and we expect the mayor, too -- must exercise due diligence to identify all risks associated with this proposed venture to prevent financial harm to the city. That means, of course, gaining a clear public understanding of the university's finances and its capacity to operate a second hospital that needs high occupancy rates and a substantial increase in surgeries and outpatient business to make a financial go of it. A certificate-of-need process -- which City Administrator Robert C. Bobb is trying to circumvent -- would go a long way toward providing answers about the hospital's costs and the duplication of services in the city. The council should insist on such a review by independent health experts.

Most of all, however, D.C. taxpayers, through their lawmakers, will want to know if the partnership with Howard would give them a return for their substantial investment. It falls to the university to be open and forthcoming with information necessary to allow the council to make the right decision.