In our opinion: Hospital board violation of OPMA is maddening

It’s unclear whether the elected members of WhidbeyHealth board are purposely flouting the state’s Open Public Meetings Act or if they are ignorant of the vital law and the general importance of open government. Either way, it’s unacceptable.

We imagine that they rolled their eyes in annoyance when they read the story in the Whidbey News-Times about how they violated OPMA by casting anonymous paper ballots as part of the process of selecting a replacement for Nancy Fey, who is resigning at the end of the month. There is also overwhelming evidence that the board made a decision, albeit informally, about who to appoint during an executive session, which is another serious violation of the law.

Moreover, Fey hasn’t left yet and actually voted on her replacement, which also appears to be a violation of a law that says only the remaining members can vote for the appointment of an elected official. It’s also counter to an Attorney General opinion which says a departing elected official can’t be replaced until after she actually departs.

One might imagine that the board members — informed citizens that they are — might have paid attention over the years to how city councils, school boards and other elected boards on the island go about business without violating sunshine laws. These elected officials know enough to never have paper ballots, make decisions in executive session or allow resigning members to take part in votes to replace themselves.

In fact, several local elected officials have expressed to the newspaper their exasperation over the hospital board, with one wondering if the members are even trying anymore.

Since the board members don’t seem to be getting good advice from their counsel, we suggest that they contact Morgan Damerow, the assistant attorney general for open government, and ask him to give a presentation about OPMA — and the Public Records Act — to both the board and administration. He was very helpful with the News-Times in confirming the basics of the statutes and pointing to both case law and attorney general opinion. Yet his job isn’t to zing public boards when they make mistakes, but to educate, answer questions and advocate for open government.

Also, a civics refresher might be in order. The hospital belongs to the citizens of Whidbey Island and they have a right to know what is happening and how decisions are being made. As the AG’s office points out, government accountability means that public officials — elected and un-elected — have an obligation to explain their decisions and actions to the citizens. Citizens have a right to see how decisions are made. The Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act are among the strongest “sunshine” laws in the nation and reflect citizens’ desire to know what their government is doing.

“A transparent and accessible government is essential to a successful free society, and fosters trust and confidence in government,” the AG’s office website states.

After the past year of turmoil, the board’s top-priority mission should be to foster trust and confidence in the hospital.