It’s rare in this day and age for citizens to be able to witness the creation of a public entity from the ground up, but that’s exactly what began Thursday at Grays Harbor Community Hospital in Aberdeen.
But, don’t blink. With just four months to be operational and running the hospital, commissioners for the newly formed Grays Harbor Public Hospital District 2 have much to do in a small time frame.
The board met Thursday for the first time inside the facility it will soon be tasked with running. A majority of Grays Harbor voters approved the creation of the district in August. The board’s first order of business was to consummate the district’s formation by adopting bylaws and electing officers.
No financial decisions were made Thursday, though those may come fairly quickly for the seven-member body. The district must have a plan in place to transfer the assets from the current non-profit hospital to the new district by Jan. 1 to take advantage of higher Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates allowed by recently passed legislation.
Brad Berg, a health care attorney for Foster Pepper PLLC in Seattle, began by providing a basic briefing on public hospital districts to the board and around 30 citizens, elected officials and hospital employees in attendance. He then introduced draft bylaws to the seven member board — consisting of commissioners Maryann Welch, Armando Juarez Jr., Miles Longenbaugh, Andy Bickar, Pete Scroggs and Dr. Ryan Farrer in attendance, and Commissioner Bob Torgerson, who attended by teleconference.
In the draft bylaws was a provision to hold one meeting per month. Welch, acknowledging the mammoth task ahead in the next 120 days, immediately suggested meeting twice per month until the end of the year to better accommodate the task.
After discussion, the board decided to hold meetings on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month, with the first meeting of the month at 1 p.m., and the second at 6 p.m., on Torgerson’s suggestion that a night meeting is more convenient for both commissioners and the public.
A much longer discussion on public comment at the board’s meetings followed, with opinions called out from the audience repeatedly interrupting the board’s discussion.
In the draft bylaws was a suggested meeting agenda structure without a set time for public comment. Torgerson suggested a comment period be established at the end of each meeting, after the conclusion of the board’s business.
“Should we do that before action is taken?” asked Longenbaugh, who, due to garnering the most votes in the election, was filling in as the acting chairman for the first meeting.
Torgerson explained that he felt the board was elected to conduct its business in public, which he feels very strongly about, but that didn’t necessarily mean the public should get involved before the meeting’s actions are taken.
“The commission could always reconsider its decisions,” he explained. Welch agreed.
“I’m kind of torn on this,” Longenbaugh countered. “If we are truly going to allow public comment, shouldn’t it be before we make a decision?”
Randy Peck of Ocean Shores, a vocal hospital watchdog, didn’t like the idea of only being able to comment after decisions were made, nor did several other audience members.
“It’s sort of like putting the horse behind the cart,” Peck said.
Aberdeen Councilman Jeff Cook chimed in from the audience as well, suggesting a public comment structure similar to his council, where there is an initial comment period at the beginning of the meeting restricted to agenda items only, then a general comment period at the end of the meeting to allow citizens a chance to address the council on any item they choose.
After a few other comments from the audience, with Longenbaugh trying to rein in the discussion, Torgerson reminded the board and the audience that the decision needed to come from the commissioners.
“The commissioners are not discussing our business, we’re having other people discuss our business,” he said.
Bickar helped bring the discussion back to the front table.
“I think public comment on the agenda is acceptable,” the Aberdeen restaurant owner said. “There needs to be some sort of an open forum.”
The commissioners decided on adopting a policy like Aberdeen’s, on a trial basis at Welch’s suggestion, though she expressed some reservations.
“It’s going to be a job for the chair to police that,” she said.
After asking Berg to make adjustments to the meeting schedule, public comment periods and a few other minor changes, the board unanimously approved its new bylaws.
Hence, the board’s next meeting will be at 1 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 9.
Scroggs nominated Torgerson and Welch as potential board presidents, and all the board members except Torgerson voted for Welch.
When votes for Torgerson were called for, the Aberdeen Police chief joked over the speakers via teleconference, “My hand is up, but you can’t see it.”
After Welch’s election as president, Scroggs nominated Torgerson for board secretary. With no other nominations, he was unanimously installed.
Welch and Torgerson will serve in the board offices until the end of the year, as the commission’s freshly approved bylaws call for the posts to be up for election at the beginning of every calendar year.
Duty to the public
With the initial housekeeping out of the way, Longenbaugh opened the floor to public comment at the end of the meeting, though much had already been said from the audience.
Several questions about how the board will disseminate agendas and board member contact information in the near future were asked, and, like many things at this stage, the commissioners admitted the mechanisms were a work-in-progress.
Several audience members also cautioned the board to tread carefully through the next four months, among them 88-year-old Jack Burtch.
“I’m concerned about how many people involved in the previous hospital board came to the new one,” he said.
He cautioned the commissioners to not conduct business in the same way as on the private board, and to carefully consider all aspects of the current hospital, including its management staff, before simply moving them over to the public district without appropriate scrutiny.
Peck tried to put the new venture into perspective with his pointed caution to the commissioners. He detailed some of the difficult financial transactions that will need to be carefully monitored in the coming months while reminding the board that many are watching them carefully.
“Each of you has a fiduciary duty to us, the public, not the former (non-profit hospital),” he said. “Do take that very seriously. We the public are watching, and we are concerned.”