A citizen questioning the legality of Wasco County’s Dec. 17 vote to leave the regional public health district filed a public records request to learn how that decision was made.
Brian Stahl of The Dalles received the requested emails Jan. 21 and provided them to the Chronicle.
They show that two days before the county commission voted to leave the health district, the county had lined up a volunteer to assist them with forming their own county health department.
And six days before the December meeting, Tyler Stone, the county’s administrative officer, recommended to Commissioner Steve Kramer that the county vote to leave the North Central Public Health District.
Stone also recommended that a consultant be hired to help the county establish their own public health department within the next six to 12 months.
That was what Kramer proposed, and the commission approved, on Dec. 17, citing years of difficulty with budgetary matters and a lack of control over what the district did.
The topic was not on the agenda and commissioners checked with staff before the meeting to see if it was legal to vote on a topic not advertised to the public.
Health district officials had made a presentation at the meeting and left, so they were unaware that the topic would come up later.
Stahl said: “I think pursuing a commission vote after counter-opinions have left the room, really, such a decision wasn’t really made as transparent as what we should come to expect our [commission] to do.”
State law says a public meeting notice “shall also include a list of the principal subjects anticipated to be considered at the meeting but this requirement shall not limit the ability of a governing body to consider additional subjects.”
Kramer had no comment on Stahl’s comment, and Commissioner Rod Runyon said, “I think things could’ve been done better, but I don’t think the outcome would’ve been any different.”
Runyon said the discussion “did catch me off guard,” but also noted the possibility of the county leaving the health district had recently been covered in the Chronicle.
Commissioner Scott Hege said, “In retrospect, it would have been better to address this issue at the end of the health district’s report.” He and Runyon noted it was the last meeting of the year and was their last chance to exit the five-year agreement that joined the county to the health district.
Hege said the county took the vote to “bring the issues to the forefront so they could be openly addressed.” He said earlier negotiations had “failed at that point.”
Runyon said he found no fault with the public records requests, but added, “It just seems like there’s something else behind all this.”
Asked to expand on that comment, he said, “I’m sure there’s personal relationships or whatever, that’s usually how things get started. …. That’s the first I’ve heard of [Stahl] being in the mix on public health or anything else.”
On Dec. 15, Duane Francis, CEO of Mid-Columbia Medical Center, emailed Kramer and Hege to say hospital employee Kathy Schwartz, a former director of the then-Wasco-Sherman County Health Department, was happy to “help whomever the county selects to advise you on public health policy and the delivery of services.”
Hege thanked Francis for his support.
In his email, Francis said Schwartz strongly advised that the county alert the state health authority. “She felt they would want to be apprised of your decision,” he said, and could “perhaps be very helpful in assisting in an interim role so as not to have a lapse in services.”
Francis said Schwartz would also help come up with names of people who might be interested in helping the county design and operate a public health department on a consulting basis, or perhaps as a candidate for the executive director position.
After 248 pages of emails were released, much of it repetitious, Stahl said he was “reviewing the information” provided.
Stahl said earlier, “I’m just trying to better understand, how did this decision come about, why was it made in the matter it was made? Why wasn’t there an opportunity for debate and why wasn’t a really detailed financial analysis done of the impacts to Wasco County as well as what the potential impacts would be to our adjoining participating counties? There was a lot of public process that should have been followed.”
Kramer responded to Stahl’s comment by saying, “That’s his opinion.”
Runyon said Stahl was “on a financial track and I don’t know that that’s the issue. I think the issue for four years that I’ve been here is communications with our finance person (Monica Morris) and our admin officer (Stone), that’s where the breakdown is.”
Several commissioners and county staff have intimated they have a hard time working with Teri Thalhofer, the director of the health district. One May 2014 email from Wasco County’s finance officer, Monica Morris, laid out groundwork for working with the health district on budgetary matters, including that questions from the county to the health district be answered “without attitude” and without “threats.”
Thalhofer earlier said she’d been counseled on her manner by her board three years ago. In all recent reviews, she said, it has not been a concern.
Stahl said if there were issues related to personality, “I would anticipate mediation would be pursued rather than immediate decisions to exit from a district that really has a huge impact on Wasco County and its citizens.”
Runyon said the communication challenge had been discussed at a number of commission meetings over the years.
He hopes the new iteration of public health will be “as good or better. We need to have more control and we have none right now, absolutely none. She’s not an employee of the county, if you’re talking about the director, and that’s what we’re talking about here, that’s what the issue is: We have to have more control to do more efficient budgeting.”
Mike Smith, who sits on the health board, has said Wasco County has citizen and elected representatives on the health board and the county’s representatives have unanimously supported health district budgets and its representatives also annually evaluate Thalhofer.
Only twice has anyone voted against the majority, and both were Kramer’s vote.
Hege said the face of health care is changing, with more people getting insurance and not using public health services. He said the commission is aware this is a disruption to staff and those served by the health district. “Our clear intent is to get through this reorganization quickly and improve the status for all.”
Stahl’s attorney, Tom Peachey, wrote in his records request that the county’s vote “appears to disregard” state policy calling for open deliberations and decisions by governments.
Such decisions are “voidable” under state public meeting law, he said, and a complaining party has 60 days to take action after such a vote. For that reason, Peachey asked the county to quickly honor his records request.
The request sought all written, email or text communication between the county commissioners, the county administrative officer and the director of the health district that include the words “public health” made between Nov. 1, 2014 and Dec. 17, 2014.