Snoqualmie Valley Hospital commissioners might consider increasing meetings
January 11, 2012
By Dan Catchpole
In 2011, the elected board of commissioners overseeing Snoqualmie Valley Hospital held 14 special meetings — meetings requiring only 24 hours of notice to the commissioners and media outlets with a standing request for notice.
The commissioners made big decisions during at least five of the meetings — decisions ranging from approving a $15 million bond sale to approving agreements for construction of the district’s planned $37 million new facility.
Hospital officials say the special meetings were necessary and legal, and that the district operates in a transparent manner.
The district never violated the state’s open meetings law in holding the meetings.
But open government advocates caution that even if there is no intended malice, relying on special meetings can raise barriers to public involvement and accountability.
“Maybe it’s legal notice, but the public doesn’t have adequate time to attend or be informed,” said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a Kirkland City Councilman.
The 24-hour notification required by law is often not enough time to allow for substantive public participation, Nixon said.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government has advocated for revising the state’s special meetings statute, but it is not a high priority, according to Nixon.
The danger of special meetings is that “really significant decisions are being made with limited notice to the public,” he said.
The hospital district does post notices of special meetings at post offices in its territory, which it is not required to do.
“From our standpoint, we’re conducting the business of the district in a way that complies with the public open meetings act, but we have to conduct the business of the district in a dynamic period here where we’re building a new hospital,” district CEO Rodger McCollum said.
Some special meetings concerned with financial issues are required to take advantage of favorable interest rates, according to district attorney Jay Rodne, who is also a state representative for the 5th Legislative District.
“A delay of a day, of 24 hours, could mean the difference of several, several — you know … several basis points. That translates into dollars and higher cost,” Rodne said.
Since the board of commissioners meets only once a month, it has to hold additional meetings, he said.
How often and for what purpose public agencies use special meetings varies greatly, according to Tim Ford, the open government ombudsman for State Attorney General Rob McKenna.
But special meetings aren’t meant to replace regularly scheduled meetings, Ford said.
Should the commissioners meet more often?
“We’ll look at it,” Commissioner Dick Jones, the board’s president, said. “I’m not opposed to it.”
Jones said he would welcome more public involvement, but the commissioners’ meetings rarely draw any citizens.
“I’ve been here eight years, and in all that time we’ve had maybe two or three” different members of the public, McCollum said.
The district would welcome more public involvement, he said.
Comment at www.snovalleystar.com.
On the Web
- Snoqualmie Valley Hospital: www.snoqualmiehospital.org
- Washington Coalition for Open Government: www.washingtoncog.org
- Open Government Ombudsman Tim Ford: www.atg.wa.gov/Open Government/Ombudsman.aspx