Why are Smith, Edwards determined to turn San Juan EMS over to Fire in the next six weeks?

What is the rush? Why are J. Michael Edwards, Rebecca Smith and Mark Schwinge determined to turn control of San Juan Island EMS over to the Fire District before the end of November? Edwards and Smith only have six more weeks as Public Hospital District commissioners and are pushing hard for the PHD to sign a contract with San Juan Island Fire Department before they leave. The interlocal agreement gives control and administration of EMS to San Juan Island Fire Chief Norvin Collins. 

The PHD will hold a special meeting at 4:30 p.m. Monday, October 14 at the Frank Wilson EMS building on Spring Street (in front of PIMC) in Friday Harbor to discuss the interlocal agreement. The public is welcome to attend. 

At their October 4 special meeting, the PHD heard from a Citizens Advisory Group member that met for a month at PHD's behest to research the merging of Fire and EMS. The CAG is opposed to the ILA. (The letter spelling out the objections is at the end of this article).

The four people who are running unopposed for the four openings on the PHD board are against the move to sign the interlocal agreement before they take their seats. Three of them take their seats after the election is certified at the end of November because they are replacing commissioners who were appointed rather than elected  to their positions. They will be saddled by this contract that they had no say in signing.  The ILA is written in such a way, that the new board will not be able to void it. The PHD commissioners will retain liability but will have no say in the running of EMS. 

Why now? Right now, the PHD has plenty to keep it busy without rushing the integration. They have to figure out how to respond to the state's settlement offer regarding medicaid fraud. Should they pay $350,000 or fight and risk up to $11 million in fines? They are preparing for an audit. They are doing long-range planning. They are putting together the 2020 budget. They are preparing to have four new board members. Why is rushing into a contract with Fire  at the top of the list? 

They are so busy they are meeting four times this month - October 4, October 14, October 16, October 23. Agendas are posted on the PHD website.

There are many issues that the CAG recommended be methodically dealt with before merging the departments. Here are just some of them:

LICENSE: The Fire District does not have a license for Advanced Life Support transport. Why merge the administration before the license is obtained?

BOUNDARIES: The district boundaries for Fire and EMS do not align. The Town of Friday Harbor residents would need to vote to annex the town into the Fire District. The outer islands would need to approve of some sort of agreements. This is all possible given enough time but cannot be done before the end of November. And what happens if the town rejects annexation? 

BOARD: The CAG recommended a five-member board for the combined Fire/EMS. This also takes a little time. It is not part of the two-year ILA.

TAXATION WITHOUT REPRESENTATION: Taxpayers in Town pay property taxes for EMS, they don't for fire. The Town contracts with Fire for services. If the ILA is signed, town taxpayers will still pay taxes for EMS but wouldn't have any representation. That is, the three Fire Commissioners who would be overseeing  Fire Chief Collins are not elected by town voters. 

BUILDING: The PHD still owes $800,000 on its building. What is to be done about that? 

These are just some of the issues that are being ignored by Smith, Edwards and Schwinge. The three comprise a majority of the PHD and  appear dead set on approving the ILA at the next regular meeting of the Hospital District on Wednesday, October 23. 

So again, why the rush?  We know why Fire Commission Chair Bob Jarman wants the ILA. It is the first step to merging the fire departments in the county into one entity, a regional fire authority. It is a pet project of his. Lopez Island and Orcas Island already have combined Fire/EMS departments. San Juan Island needs to have the same set up  if the three were to merge. Whether the rest of the county wants to have their individual fire departments merge into one entity is an unknown at this time. So again, why the rush?

If the ILA is a good idea, it will still be a good idea two months from now.  


"My name is Rick Frazier and I wanted to address what I perceive as a premature takeover of the EMS System by the Fire System. It goes to the intent of a contract that was introduced at the Fire Department Board meeting last week and has been under development since early summer. As many of you are aware, I was part of the Citizen Advisory Group that was chartered to analyze the integration of the EMS System into the Fire System. The team spent the better part of last year and early this year interviewing many individuals and organizations and gathered a lot of information. One piece of information that was presented was the idea of an inter-local agreement to run the EMS System by the Fire Department while the integration was moving forward.

"At its conclusion the CAG released a document that recommended an integration with several absolute conditions to follow the recommendation. As part of the presentation to the board and public, it outlined its findings and a statement was made to the chair of the CAG, based on feedback to the committee and the committee's discussion, that an inter-local agreement would not be a recommended course of action. 

"The reasoning behind the statement was the degree of complexity involved in bringing municipal organizations together that have different district boundaries, levies that need to be approved, and union contracts that need to be integrated, federal and state licenses that need to be transferred or obtained new. In addition, clinical policies, procedures and practices need to transfer, financial budgets (both operational and capital) need to be approved, current liabilities of the organization need to be disposed of and most importantly the acceptance and approval by the residents/share holders of both organizations. 

"To date I am not aware that any of these issues have been accomplished or even planned out. I am not aware that any plans have been presented to the community and yet this contractual agreement puts the Fire Department and especially their employee, the new Fire Chief, as CEO of the EMS Organization. The contract spells out that the Fire Chief makes ultimate decisions and runs the EMS Organization. This contract is also being entered into just prior to a brand-new PHD board coming into office (within two months) which leaves the new PHD Board carrying all the liability and exposure of the Fire Chief's decisions without having a vote. And those decisions could carry heavy fines and potentially other penalties as this board is aware. 

"While I believe many of the individuals involved in this process have good intentions about their decisions and direction, the ramifications of these actions as even demonstrated this week could have undetermined outcomes. 


"I'm here on behalf of the four hospital district candidates [Everett Clary, Trish Lehman, Kyle Loring, Leschine-Seitz,] running for office this fall to ask that you thoughtfully approach any proposal to transfer supervision of EMS to the fire district to ensure that it will result in the best possible medical care for our community. We understand that you may be considering relieving the interim EMS chief of his duties by contracting out those responsibilities. We believe that such a decision should not be rushed, especially given repeated statements by the two chiefs that they are working well together to explore the structure of an integrated fire/EMS district. If you do feel the need to enter into an agreement, we request that it embrace best practices and the public interest by:

1. Being the subject of discussion only at a meeting held at a time that working people can attend and only with proper public notice of at least two weeks;

2. Maintaining fiscal neutrality by decreasing EMS expenses in an amount commensurate with the contract costs;

3. Assuring that the fire district has the authority and all of the licenses/insurance/etc. necessary to oversee EMS;

4. Expressly indemnifying the hospital district and its commissioners in the event that fire district oversight leads to claims against the hospital district;

5. Allowing the commissioners to set the fire chief's reporting requirements to the hospital district; and 

6. Including a provision allowing for-cause termination of the agreement, at a cost to be shared by both parties. In the current draft the term 'material breach' would need to be defined by both parties, so it is more accurate and clear. 

Thank you for your public service, and we look forward to carrying forward the work you have done on behalf of our community.


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