The WhidbeyHealth board of commissioners selected a new colleague to join them in steering the direction of the public hospital district.
The manner in which the board voted on the choice — which involved secret ballots — likely ran afoul of the Open Public Meetings Act, according to information from the open government ombudsman for the state Attorney General’s Office. In addition, Board Secretary Nancy Fey is resigning effective Sept. 30 and took part in the vote, which also may have violated state law. A law on filling elected vacancies states that “where one position is vacant, the remaining members of the governing body shall appoint a qualified person to fill the vacant position.”
At a board meeting Thursday, Greg Richardson was selected out of three candidates who were interviewed. Along with Richardson, Morgan Cooper and David Allen had been selected to be interviewed.
A total of seven people applied for the vacant seat. Board President Ron Wallin said he appreciated that so many people had applied.
Richardson has lived in Clinton since 2014 and is a retired partner with a human resources consulting firm. He has specialized in working with healthcare organizations. He is a certified senior professional in human resources. He retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force in 1993. He said his wife has been an OB-GYN for 40 years and he’s passionate about women’s health.
Richardson said that one of the primary obligations of the board is to communicate with the public and that is something he would focus on, along with the use of telehealth to help people who have limited mobility.
“Telehealth is something we could really capitalize on,” he said. “It would reduce costs.”
Richardson said he was inspired to apply for the position because he had been concerned about the financial and morale issues that WhidbeyHealth faced.
“I just sensed that there was something, with my background, that I could do from a standpoint of strategic leadership, of human resource consulting, of retention and talent management, which my background has been for the last 25 years,” he said.
Commissioner Grethe Cammermeyer said she thought his background was more suited to the role of CEO, although Richardson disagreed.
Morgan Cooper, a Langley resident, has over 25 years of sales and marketing-related experience. She worked in public relations at St. Luke’s Hospital, which she described as “a big challenge” because of negative public opinion related to the hospital location in a low-income area.
She said her experience could help WhidbeyHealth’s finances by building programs that will build revenue.
Wallin asked if she could separate her political involvement from the commissioner role. According to islandcountygop.com, Cooper is the vice chair of the Island County Republican Party’s executive board.
“This hospital is not a Democratic or Republican hospital,” Wallin said.
Cooper said she was surprised that he brought it up because it was a personal matter and that it would not affect her role on the board if she was selected.
Allen was interviewed last. He has been living on Whidbey Island full time since about 2015. He is a Freeland resident, registered nurse, a retired dean of University of Washington Bothell and professor of nursing and health studies. He is a member of the community board for Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett and the vice president of Whidbey Audubon Society.
Allen said that while there would be no conflict of interest with serving on another hospital board, he would still resign from the Providence board if selected.
“I wouldn’t try to do both,” Allen said. “I think I could ethically but I just wouldn’t.”
Cammermeyer said WhidbeyHealth is working toward a behavioral health clinic and service line and wants to build a relationship with the University of Washington to do so. Allen said that was something he could do.
“Any health care organization should have educational pipelines,” he said.
Allen critiqued the board for using the meeting to present things like the finance and human resources reports.
“I’m not sure listening to reports is the best way to spend your time,” he said.
After the interviews, the commissioners discussed the applicants. Commissioner James Golder said that the board needed to work on its public image and he didn’t think replacing Fey with a male commissioner would do that.
Cammermeyer disagreed, saying that gender should not be the reason for choosing the new commissioner and that boosting public image was not part of the role.
Fey was in favor of Richardson. She said, “To me it’s very clear who I think should be sitting here, but it’s interesting to hear all of your opinions.”
The board submitted their votes secretly and anonymously on paper, then went into executive session before returning to open session. Wallin announced that Richardson was chosen for the position. Then the board voted to appoint Richardson. The vote was unanimous.
The anonymous papers ballots, which the News-Times received from the hospital, show that the initial vote was not unanimous.
Morgan Damerow, assistant attorney general for open government, said secret ballots are not allowed under the Open Public Meetings Act. The normal procedure would have been for a board member to make a motion and then for all the board members to verbally vote on the motion. He said paper ballots are very unusual and the only way they might be legal is if they were passed to the clerk or president of the board who reads aloud how each board member voted. But that didn’t happen.
The board members are also not allowed to make any decisions in executive session, even an informal agreement.
In addition, Damerow pointed to a 1978 opinion from the Attorney General’s Office regarding a city council that states an appointment cannot be made until the effective date of the resignation as per RCW 42.12.070.
Conor O’Brien, hospital marketing manager and public records officer, said the issues will get sorted out prior to Richardson being sworn in.
“I believe the guidance and interpretation of the OPMA provided to the Board was that a unanimous passing of a motion to appoint was equivalent to reading the cast votes aloud,” he wrote in an email.
Richardson will need to run and win in the general election in 2023 to retain the commissioner seat through 2025. After that, he will then follow the standard election cycle of a six-year term, beginning with the 2025 general election.