Conflict gets rise from candidate

A political candidate flew to Dr. Paul Zaveruha’s defense in a debate about the potential for a conflict of interest in how a vote was conducted Monday night.

The issue surfaced at Whidbey General Hospital’s board of commissioners monthly meeting. Zaveruha is an elected hospital commissioner and also medical director for Emergency Medical Services.

The board approved a one percent annual increase in the rate taxpayers will pay on two existing levies. One levy supports hospital operations and the other supports Emergency Medical Services.

The board had moved on to other matters when the district’s lawyer and financial officer stepped outside for a brief private discussion. Afterward, attorney Dale Roundy suggested Zaveruha recuse himself and the vote be retaken on the EMS levy.

Zaveruha questioned the alleged conflict of interest.

Hospital Director Scott Rhine responded that Zaveruha is directly connected to levy decisions because he holds a contract with the EMS council to deliver ambulance service to the district.

Roundy said it raises questions about a potential conflict of interest because public and private money are co-mingled in the EMS budget. Preliminary budget estimates show the levy may generate $2.4 million in 2006 and about $1.8 million may come from fees for services.

“The council receives the money and what they do with it is up to them,” Zaveruha said.

Commissioner Barb Saugen responded, “If there is even an appearance of conflict of interest, we need to err on the side of caution.”

Board members agreed that not only should Zaveruha recuse himself from the vote but he also should physically leave the room.

Dave Marshall, a candidate seeking to unseat Commissioner Kristy Lang Miller from the board, spoke loudly from the back of the room.

“Why does he have to leave the room?”

Roundy responded that Zaveruha is a citizen who is elected to serve a role, which means there can’t even be an appearance of a conflict of interest.

Marshall noted that he himself is not a lawyer, but he could find no requirement in the Open Meetings Act for physical removal as part of recusal.

Zaveruha said he was willing to step outside, but pointed out there are exceptions to the law, such as when the person has expertise helpful to the decision making.

Roundy said the person’s presence in the room could potentially influence the vote’s outcome. He said if expert input was required, the board would table action, listen to the expertise and then continue action after the person left the room.

Following Zaveruha’s exit, the board rescinded its earlier vote and took a fresh vote on the EMS levy rate.

Commissioner Miller, Marshall’s opponent, was absent from the meeting due to illness and voted via speaker phone.

Marshall’s connection to Zaveruha has been part of the campaign debate. His wife Jean is office manager of the surgical center, which Zaveruha partially owns.

Marshall said in an interview that he agreed with the board’s actions, but still is unclear about why Zaveruha had to remove himself from the room. He alleged that a commissioner with a personal interest voted without recusal in 2002, and he asked why the rules have changed. Marshall declined to name the person because he has no firsthand knowledge and is researching the records, he said.

A former A-6 pilot, Marshall said he doesn’t foresee any conflict of interest due to his wife’s employment.

“As a public official, I have to take an oath to uphold the law. I’ve done that before in the military.”

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