Can the board of a public agency end the public’s control of that agency without asking the public? That question is set to be argued Dec. 28 at King County Superior Court, Judge Michael Hayden presiding.
The case was filed in the name of Public Hospital District No. 1 of King County. It owns Valley Medical Center in Renton and is supported by taxes on property owners in Renton, Kent and surrounding communities. The district has five board members elected by voters.
Valley Medical’s longtime CEO, Rich Roodman, served for many years at the pleasure of the board. He is a figure of some controversy.
Last year, Becker’s Hospital Review reported Roodman as “the highest paid public employee in Washington, having made a total of $1.13 million in 2010.” Part of this was pay, part a bonus and part a “retention payment.”
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Two of the five on the board, recently elected, were critical of Roodman. In 2011, an election was coming up for a third seat.
That May, before the election, the three supporters of Roodman voted to accept a quasi-merger with UW Medicine, an arm of the University of Washington. The two critics voted no. The board’s majority was advised by counsel that they did not have to ask the public, and they did not.
On July 1, 2011, Valley Medical affiliated with UW Medicine.
The old hospital district board was merged into a new 13-member board, with the eight other board members from UW Medicine or appointed by it. The new board makes most of the policy decisions at Valley Medical, one of which was to retain Roodman as CEO.
In the November 2011 election, the hospital district’s voters had a choice for an open seat on the board between a supporter of the deal and a critic. Each candidate spent more than $90,000, a huge sum for a seat on a hospital board. Voters elected the critic, a local ophthalmologist, Dr. Paul Joos.
The three critical board members, Joos, Dr. Aaron Heide and Anthony Hemstad, have brought the case of Public Hospital District No. 1 of King County v. University of Washington.
Their argument is fundamentally political. The deal “has completely disenfranchised the voters of the district,” says their attorney, Bruce Disend of Kenyon Disend, Issaquah. He and Tukwila attorney Phil Talmadge, a former justice of the Washington Supreme Court, are asking the court to cancel the contract on the grounds that the board had no authority to sign away public control.
UW Medicine disagrees. “They’re just wrong about that,” says its attorney, Louis Peterson of Hillis Clark Martin & Peterson, Seattle.
Peterson says the old board had broad authority under state law to make contracts. It didn’t have to sign a contract giving away most of its independent power for up to 35 years, but it did. Since then, decisions have been made and money invested in the new alliance.
Says Joos, whose election made the case possible, “I’m not against the alliance. I’m against the governance.”
There are other issues, internal to Valley Medical. “The majority of the board” — the elected board — “has an issue with the current administration,” Joos says. “This is all about power and control.”
And not about medicine, as such. There are no medical arguments in the court papers.
These two public agencies could just as well be two corporations fighting over the terms of a merger, whether the stockholders should have had a vote, and whether the side that wants out would have to pay money to the side that doesn’t.
Bruce Ramsey’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org