After a year of bad financial news and a week of rumors, WhidbeyHealth CEO Geri Forbes announced she will retire.
To calm community concerns about the direction of the hospital, the elected hospital commissioners — and those who were appointed — need to engage with the community and adopt a new spirit of openness.
A new round of town hall-style meetings would help, but this time it should be the elected officials who explain their plans, concerns and hopes. Information about the budget and facilities should be presented in straight-forward terms. Complaints should be aired honestly.
The commissioners should all answer questions from the hospital employees, citizens and the media. It’s a basic part of being an elected official.
There are plenty of questions about Forbes hanging out there that haven’t been answered. Is there a severance package? If she retires, there shouldn’t be one, but commissioners aren’t saying.
Alarmingly, a staff member at the hospital recently responded to a newspaper question directed at one of the commissioners. The staff member pointed to a board bylaw that states all reporter questions must go through the CEO or CFO.
Toby Nixon, a state expert in open government, said he thinks that such a rule is nothing short of insane.
“If someone stands for election,” he said, “they have a responsibility to be open and accessible to the public and willing to speak about the agency and their position on agency issues. It’s one thing to defer to the staff on technical issues, but quite another to be unwilling to speak on agency mission, vision, plans and policies.”
Elected officials are the ones making these vital decisions, or at least they are supposed to be. The bylaw goes against the basic tenets of democracy, the constitution and common sense.
Of course, such a policy is unenforceable and pretty meaningless, except in what it says about the board. It enforces the belief that these elected officials aren’t capable, don’t feel accountable and aren’t willing to address complaints directed against the leadership.
The hospital district’s success depends to a large extent on its reputation. A lot of great things are happening at the hospital — especially when it comes to the quality of doctors, nurses and other staff — but those things may go overlooked if people don’t trust the people in charge.