Voters not represented on SJI PHD commission, AG opinion needed

EDITORIAL: San Juan Island citizens were subjected to a grueling and ugly election process for three seats on the Hospital District Commission in 2015. Heated debate over providing funding for Planned Parenthood was one of the flash points.  Three candidates - Barbara Sharp, Monica Harrington,  and Bill Williams - were swept into office with 62 percent, 58 percent and 60 percent of the vote respectively. 

Three years later, none of the three are on the board. Sharp's two-year term expired in 2017 and she chose not to run for re-election. She did apply to be appointed to the commission after two vacancies were created by Harrington's and Williams' resignations.

Harrington resigned January 25, 2018 because she was leaving the island and moving to British Columbia for employment in a clean energy tech company.   Williams resigned after push back from EMS staff and Commissioners J. Michael Edward and Mark Schwinge. They objected to the appointment of Rick Fraser as interim EMS Chief rather than promoting EMS Paramedic Kyle Davies.

Voters are now represented by Edwards whose term expired in 2017. He chose not to run for re-election, but is still on the commission because Peg LeBlanc who signed up to run for his position, withdrew after she decided she didn't want to fill out the Public Disclosure Forms required of a candidate. Her name still appeared on the ballot, she was elected and then  chose not to take the oath of office. Due to the lack of a "qualified" candidate - one who has taken the oath of office - Edwards remains in the position. He has served on the commission for 13 years. 

His tenure includes the years San Juan Island Emergency Medical Services operated under what many would describe as inaccurate budgets. Approximately $4 million in mostly uncollectable accounts receivable were included as revenue in the budget.

During the years Edwards was providing oversight as a commissioner, a Civil Investigative Demand (CID) from the state Attorney's Office into possible medicare/medicaid fraud by  SJI EMS was issued. Insufficient paperwork and questions about the method and destinations when transporting patients off-island triggered the investigation.  Under medicaid, transportation is paid to the closest appropriate medical facility. Many of the flights were made to PeaceHealth's St. Joseph Hospital in Bellingham rather than Island Hospital in Anacortes, for instance. 

The results of the CID  are supposed to be released this month. The taxpayers of the hospital district,  who will ultimately be paying the bill if and when the state issues penalties,  should be fully informed of the results of the CID. That is not likely to happen as Edwards is restricting which commissioners can attend briefings with the AG's office. A presentation by the AG office to the community is a possibility but only if Edwards allows it,  according to people who have knowledge of the process. 

The lack of transparency by the commission under the Edwards' leadership is apparent in several areas. First the ongoing private meetings with Fire Commissioner Bob Jarman to discuss merging EMS with the fire district. Read more about that here.

Secondly, the handling of the Civil Investigative Demand from the AG's office. 

Thirdly, the process of selecting two people to fill the positions vacated by Harrington and Williams. Anyone in attendance at the February 8, 2018 special meeting knows there was no discussion by the three commissioners - Edwards, Schwinge and Anna Lisa Lindstrum - of the seven candidates before voting took place. It was apparent that Edwards and Schwinge communicated prior to the meeting and had their selections arranged. 

While Washington State's Open Public Meetings Act exists to ensure that the public's business takes place in public instead of behind closed doors out of sight of the public, the Hospital District says Edwards and Schwinge did not violate the OPMA by discussing the candidates prior to the public meeting. According to the district, the hospital commission is statutorily  a five-member commission and therefore even if there are only three members due to vacancies, two commissioners are allowed to discuss district business outside of a public meeting. 

This would be logical if three votes were required to conduct business. Two people conferring privately wouldn't be able to make decisions since it would take three votes to approve something.

Surprisingly, the district says according to its attorney, the commission could appoint candidates to the board by a 2-1 vote. So Edwards and Schwinge could legally discuss the candidates outside of a public meeting and then appoint their choices with their two votes. 

According to the district's bylaws:

The bylaws are silent on whether a majority of the whole commission or a majority of the members in attendance is required for motions. The appointments to the board were made by motion. 

Schwinge and Edwards voted to select an unqualified candidate, Dr. Warren Appleton for the commission. Appleton, a part-time resident of San Juan Island  who believed the hospital district was formed five years ago, was not  a registered voter in San Juan County. Edwards asked him how long he's lived in the district and he said he's lived on the island for six years and in the district for five. He is registered to vote in King County. The hospital district is planning on reappointing him at its Feb. 28 meeting. He will have changed his voter registration by then, according to the district. 

Schwinge and Edwards appointed former EMT and Friday Harbor Fire Department firefighter Rebecca Smith. She served as a fire commissioner for six years. Lindstrum's concerns about conflict of interest because Smith is married to an EMT were shrugged ignored. 

Schwinge and Edwards chose Appleton and Smith instead of: 

Barbara Sharp, retired attorney, who has lived full-time on the island since 2002. She was elected to the hospital district commission by a 61 percent vote in 2015. It was for the two years left on an unfilled term. During her tenure she served as secretary/financial officer and reviewed the monthly financial reports. She drew on her legal experience and education during her work on the board and believed both would be an asset when dealing with the potential merger and the need for a long-term care facility in the islands. 

John Manning, retired San Juan County Health and Community Services  Director, who ran against Lindstrum and received 38 percent of the vote, has experience with EMS services in Alaska in addition to his 20 years as SJC H&CS Director. 

Dr. David Balmer, who has lived on the island for six years, has 25 years of primary care experience and 13 years with Health Plan management and program development. 

David Meiland, general contractor, construction manager and building science consultant,  was a volunteer firefighter in Friday Harbor from 2004 to 2008.

C. Mitchell Shlosser, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and Seattle Firefighter and Senior Medic,  has lived on the island for two years. 

Questions have been raised about the validity of the 2-1 vote.  When asked if this was legal, the state Attorney General's Office staff replied:

Per Nancy Krier, our open government ombuds: It seems that the OPMA does not expressly answer your question and there could be laws outside the OPMA that may be relevant to a legal analysis. Answering this question would require legal research and analysis, which we do through AG Opinions, an in-depth process that can only be requested by certain officials. 

A formal AGO can be requested by: 

  • Members of the Washington State Legislature. (State Senator Kevin Ranker (D-Orcas); Rep. Jeff Morris (D-Mt Vernon), Rep. Kris Lytton (D-Anacortes).
  • Statewide elected officials.
  • Appointed heads of state agencies, boards, or commissions.
  • County prosecuting attorneys. (San Juan County Prosecutor Randy Gaylord)

In the interest of democracy, fairness and transparent government, the Hospital District should put the appointments on hold and ask Ranker or Gaylord to request an AG Opinion.  No one is well served if only two - Schwinge and Lindstrum - of five commissioners are chosen by the voters. 

SJ EMS staff deserve to be treated fairly. Voters also deserve fair treatment. A well-run, financially stable EMS organization will best serve everyone. In order to have that we need to ensure there is respectful, appropriate oversight. 

 

 

 

 

 

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