Whidbey General Hospital’s transparency issues are largely unfounded.
That was the general sentiment of hospital commissioner incumbents about ongoing concerns of closed government practices at the hospital during a candidate forum in Langley this past week. Georgia Gardner and Nancy Fey, both of whom are seeking re-election this November, brushed off the much-talked-about issue as one of little substance. Officials release information when they can and withhold documents when they have to, they said.
“I don’t think we lack transparency, we lack communication,” Gardner said.
The election forum, held Thursday at Langley United Methodist Church, was attended by about 75 people. Participating were hospital candidates Gardner and challenger Rob Born for position 2, Fey and challenger Erika Carnahan for position 4, and Langley mayoral hopefuls Tim Callison and Sharon Emerson (See story on page 22).
Organized and run by the League of Women Voters, the matter of transparency was addressed with at least two different questions. One asked candidates how they might educate the public on how a public hospital district works and the other concerned document-laden information packets that are passed out to commissioners before meetings — reporters have struggled to get them at the same time or in a timely manner.
Concerning the latter, Gardner said the board often doesn’t get the packets until the last minute so the public and media can’t get them any sooner. But, there is also information in the packets that simply can’t be disclosed to the public until after the commissioners have either reviewed or taken action on the topics.
“Until the board passes something, it can’t be released to the public,” she said.
In a follow-up interview this week, however, Gardner said she didn’t personally agree with that position, and that she even argued against it in an informal discussion with other board members at a recent board meeting. Gardner said board president Anne Tarrant told her later that hospital attorneys had advised the district not to release the commissioners’ packets until after board meetings.
Gardner said “budget reports” were one example of information that should not be disclosed.
Nancy Krier, assistant attorney of government accountability with the state Attorney General’s Office, said there’s nothing in the state’s Open Public Meetings Act or the Open Public Records Act that requires an agency to electively release commissioner packets prior to or at a public meeting. It’s up to the board to do so, or not.
It’s common practice among public agencies on Whidbey Island; the city and town councils of Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley have been doing it for years.
But, while boards may not be required to pass out information, it doesn’t mean the board “can’t” as Gardner said. There are some exceptions for records considered draft documents, but in general most of it is disclosable by a public records request. Also, if an agency denies any records the agency must supply the state law under which it’s exempt, Krier said.
Born, who is vying to unseat Gardner and is running on a slate of transparency and management-related issues, was quick to point out at the forum that he sees the hospital as anything but open, “not by a long shot,” he said. The district has gotten lots of “bad press” over the matter, and promised to do things differently if elected.
“If I get on the board, I will share public information and public documents with the press,” he said.
Fey said the board has trouble getting commissioner packets several days in advance too because they aren’t finalized until shortly before the meeting. She also claimed that the public can find just about everything on the hospital’s website.
“Everything is online; it’s all up on the website by the time we have it,” she said.
Carnahan agreed with Fey and said that transparency doesn’t seem to be a problem.
“If everything is on the website, it shouldn’t be an issue,” she said.
Born, however, claimed that the only packet-related information posted online is the agenda and that’s because it’s required by state law. He also complained that the Dashboard, an information-heavy document, is not posted online despite earlier promises by hospital officials.
Fey shook her head in the negative while he spoke, but Gardner corroborated Born’s statement. State law does require agendas to be published, she said, and the Dashboard is supposed to be online and didn’t know why it was not.
Gardner did bring up the issue during Monday’s board meeting, asking hospital CEO Geri Forbes why an agenda hadn’t been posted online.
On the matter of the board’s 7 a.m. meetings, Carnahan said she understands the reasoning behind it, that afternoon meetings saw poor public attendance, and mornings, which have seen equally poor attendance, is a better time for hospital staff. She suggested televising meetings for the public like Oak Harbor City Council meetings.
Fey agreed that the earlier time works well for staff, such as physicians. She also mentioned the board’s interest in holding other public information meetings to help educate the community about hospital doings.
With the exception of Born, the three candidates also found themselves largely in agreement that it’s “inappropriate” for elected commissioners to speak directly with staff and patients. Gardner called it “micro managing,” Fey agreed but added that she gets lots of feedback from the people in informal settings such as grocery stores and that the feedback “doesn’t go on deaf ears,” and Carnahan said some change may be needed but didn’t go into detail.
Born, as he did with board packets, saw it differently.
“I don’t think we can have enough conversations with our employees and with our patients,” he said.
The candidates also addressed issues such as affiliation and/or hospital partnerships, taxes and priorities.