Harrington reveals the problem with EMS | Guest Column

By Monica Harrington

Former San Juan Island Public Hospital District Commissioner

(Editor’s note: Harrington resigned from her elected position on Jan. 25)

What really happened? Several people have asked me to provide some perspective on my experience as a public hospital district commissioner.

The first thing you need to know is that the early opposition against me (and Bill Williams) was fueled by our support for easily accessible, low-cost reproductive health services.

Bill and I first crossed paths because we were deeply concerned about making health care on the island more affordable and accessible. In addition to our shared interest in lowering the cost of urgent care, Bill and I were both committed to finding a pragmatic solution to support reproductive health services and comply with Washington state law — which we were able to do, even as public hospital districts around the state were being sued.

My opponent in the November 2015 election Jenny Ledford was as fiercely anti-choice as I am pro-choice. She was volunteering within EMS throughout the election and, although I know some of the EMTs casually, by the time I won office after a hotly-contested election battle, word had spread that I was somehow an enemy of EMS.

Several of the EMS staff decided to oppose Bill and me — going so far as testifying against us at district meetings before we even took office.

I genuinely had not formed an opinion of the EMS organization, except that I knew its future looked dire, given that there had been two failed levy attempts.

What I found upon taking office was an EMS organization with skilled responders but no reserves for capital expenses, a bloated view of its accounts receivable, and no one internal to EMS who seemed to understand fairly basic concepts of budgeting. We needed a credible budget in place before the levy vote, but we ran into internal resistance and ultimately had to bring in an outside consultant and a citizens’ group to help pull a budget together.

I focused on budget issues because I have a strong business/financial background. But the cultural issues were a problem as well. Basically, my view of public agencies is that they exist to serve the public and are held accountable through the oversight of elected officials who answer to the community. Within EMS, I found a bunker mentality culture — where people were defined as “with us” or “against us.”

In my view, Commissioner Michael Edwards fueled this perspective, especially since he and Commissioner Mark Schwinge were so opposed to funding reproductive health services through Planned Parenthood. Basically, anyone who supported Planned Parenthood was clearly the enemy and that crossed over into the relationship with EMS.

I want EMS to be financially healthy and well functioning (and I’m open-minded as to whether it should join with Fire). In any event, I believe the agency itself and the emergency responders, in particular, are ill-served by a management structure that believes it shouldn’t answer to the community — especially since the community has made clear it supports reproductive health services AND wants a fiscally sound, sustainable EMS organization.