Contributed photo/Alvaro Serrano

Authoritarianism vs. Democracy: What the public must know about the PHD | Guest Column

By Kathleen Bartholomew

San Juan Island

The San Juan County Public Hospital District board of commissioners held their regular meeting on Wednesday, Jan. 25. One of the agenda items is of special note, as the commissioners voted 3 to 2 to retain Bill Williams as chair of the board.

This vote was taken without discussion in spite of the nomination of Michael Edwards, which was supported by a petition signed by 24 of the 31 currently serving EMTs at San Juan Island Emergency Medical Services and its supervising physician. SJIEMS is the agency governed by the board. The petition, submitted by a 29-year veteran EMT, was disallowed by the chair, and then summarily ignored. The three newest commissioners campaigned as a group and have continued to vote within the board as a group, effectively reducing the board to three voting members. This coaction by three of the board members brings in question the code of ethics which clearly states that “commissioners are expected to engage in robust, active discussions of the issues submitted to the board for consideration.” The current board appears to operate under the practical presumption that the triad of commissioners Williams, Sharp and Harrington will prevail in all matters — and in fact, the record shows that the most controversial votes since the three have been in office have all been a 3 to 2 split.

The relationship between the commissioners is clearly not productive, effective or ethical. It has been adversarial to the point that an outside counselor had to be retained to assist in improving the relationship with the chief of EMS, chair and the commissioners. The cost of this mediation and counseling for basic interpersonal leadership skills during 2016 was $14,200. This is unprecedented.

Because of the current dysfunctional block vote, 3-2 pattern, any attempt at a truly balanced discussion of the critical issues among the five supposedly independent commissioners becomes moot. A board whose decisions are predetermined by a rigid voting block is, by definition, broken. Authoritarian rule is incompatible with robust, deliberative democracy. In its present form, this authoritarian board cannot, and will not, effectively serve the public’s interests.

It is the primary duty of our public health board to ensure basic essential services based on the fact-based fact based, needs of our community as set forth in the Community Health Needs Assessment and Implementation Plan (2016-2019). Instead, personal agendas have prevailed, and a scientific approach to assessing our community’s most critical needs is conspicuously absent — as demonstrated by the Feb. 22 board meeting. Immediate action must be taken to: 1) break the voting-block, or 2) ask the chair to step down for the best interest of democracy, or 3) demand that the board work as one for the best interest of the community as the bylaws state. Until then, the appearance of an unresponsive troika dictating every resolution will not only undermine public confidence, but fail to address this community’s public health needs. (A Code of Ethics is at