That famous (infamous) Public Hospital District No. 1 election of two years ago to expand Valley Medical Center’s service area to better reflect its size is an example of how victory sometimes just isn’t enough for some – and how the bitter taste of defeat can linger.
First, a given. Public oversight of the workings of government is critical to ensuring that everyone gets a fair shake. But just as they expect of our elected officials, citizen overseers have to be reasoned and reasonable, too.
The hospital district in May 2006 asked voters to annex a big chunk of territory so that it could expand its network of medical clinics. A larger district would have meant more tax dollars, which was – and is – critical to the survival of the hospital. Public hospitals have to treat everyone, regardless of ability to pay. Uncompensated care runs into the millions of dollars.
But 94 percent of those who cast ballots – about 14,000 – said no. Only 805 said yes. It was a resounding defeat, fueled mostly because voters were convinced the hospital Board of Commissioners was running a stealth campaign to win passage of the measure. It turns out the hospital also was using public dollars to run the election, a violation of campaign laws.
What’s important is that voters spoke and spoke loudly. They were engaged and informed, even if there wasn’t a voters pamphlet for them to read.
Despite the lop-sided victory, the fallout continued. Last fall two longtime board commissioners, Carole Anderson and Gary Kohlwes, lost their spots on the board to candidates who ran as reformers. Anderson lost in a machine recount to Anthony Hemstad, the city manager for Maple Valley. I am sure that other commissioners were glad their names weren’t on the ballot, because the blood-letting could have been worse.
Hemstad continues to defend himself against charges that as a city manager he doesn’t have time to also take a leadership role in running a complex organization such as a hospital.
Maple Valley’s City Council also meets on Monday, but in the evenings. The hospital board meets Monday afternoons, starting at 3:30 p.m. He got the OK from Maple Valley’s mayor to run.
Hemstad did his research, discovering that just four of the board’s meetings had gone on past 6:30 p.m. in the previous 18 months. It’s hard to duplicate that research online because it wasn’t until the end of 2007 that the board started posting minutes to the hospital Web site.
But it seems that the business of running the hospital is taking a lot longer these days. The last meeting in December lasted for just under two hours. So far this year (through the March 17 meeting, the last minutes posted), the board has needed anywhere from roughly 3 1⁄2 hours to 4 1⁄2 hours to get its work done. Meetings have lasted until nearly 8 p.m., which means that Hemstad is losing up to 90 minutes of information about the hospital.
Maybe that extra time is a reflection of the public overseers taking more time to ask their questions and to comment. Or it reflects the value of new board members, who come in with a fresh perspective AND lots of questions.
Hemstad made it clear from the very beginning that he would have to excuse himself at 6:30 p.m. to make it to the Maple Valley City Council meeting on time. This year, other board members have asked to be excused early, too. Still, I wonder whether Hemstad can effectively do both jobs well, considering the timing issue. He certainly knows government, and that’s a plus.
The mercurial Sen. Pam Roach also came into play. She joined those who opposed the annexation, many of whom are in her legislative district. She was representing her constituents. Did she mount a political conspiracy to dismantle the public hospital district? Frankly, everything in partisan politics begins as a “conspiracy” and evolves into sometime more rhetorically benign when the compromising starts. Conspirators don’t get anywhere unless they have the votes.
And then there’s Chris Clifford, who is known for filing lawsuits and attempting to recall elected officials. In his attempt to recall Don Jacobson, president of the hospital board, Clifford charged that the board’s committee structure violated the Open Public Meetings Act. But, last week, the recall was stopped dead in its tracks by a Superior Court judge. There you have the reasoned and reasonable.
You want to recall someone? Do it at the polls. It works. Ask Carole Anderson and Gary Kohlwes. Unless the offense is obviously egregious, such efforts distract our public officials from doing our real work.
What’s important here, I think, is that the processes put in place to ensure public over sight worked, even the recall attempt mounted by Clifford.
Everyone had their chance. Now it’s time to move on. Valley Medical has important work to do.
But keep watching, too.
Dean A. Radford can be reached at 425-255-3484, ext. 5050, or at email@example.com.