The main point of contention at the Palm Drive Health Care District board meeting on Monday, May 5, was whether the district could dissolve in time to avoid having to pay tens of thousands of dollars for a board election in November.
According to Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Deva Marie Proto, “The estimated costs for Palm Drive to hold an election in November would be $74,796 to $124,660.”
That’s quite a sum to pay for an election for a district that is now scheduled to be dissolved at the end of the October, days before the scheduled election is due to take place.
There are three district board seats up for grabs — seats currently held by Eira Klich-Heartt, Gail Thomas and Randy Coffman — and it seems to be the opinion of the health district’s attorneys that the district is going to have to shell out for this election even though it’s likely that none of those elected will ever serve on the board or, if they do, it will be for a very short time.
“It’s not just the bylaws that require you to have an election,” said attorney William Arnone. “There's a whole structure of California Code sections that also compel you to have an election: the code sections under which the district was formed and the code sections that apply to elected government officials also require that you have an election.”
The county stalls
Although opponents of the Palm Drive Health Care District have long accused the district’s board of dragging its feet with regard to dissolution, this time it’s the county of Sonoma — which will be taking over the district’s assets and debts — that has called for the delay.
The health district was initially scheduled to dissolve by mid-July, but in March, Sonoma County Auditor-Controller-Treasurer-Tax Collector Erick Roeser wrote to the district to inform them that, because of the pandemic, the county wouldn’t have the bandwidth to deal with Palm Drive until fall.
Roeser told Sonoma West, “Dissolution is a multi-county department effort and will take significant coordination. The initial request and timeline for dissolution would have been challenging under ideal circumstances. Unfortunately, the request came at the start of the COVID-19 emergency and several county departments that have a role in winding up the affairs of the district are currently responding to the COVID-19 emergency. As a result, it is necessary to push back the initial dissolution timeline approximately three months.”
Which puts the district smack into the election season.
Looking for a way out
A couple of ideas were floated about how the district might avoid this fate.
Board member Coffman suggested that the district simply wash their hands of the matter by dissolving unilaterally.
“What if the board determines that we're just going to dissolve, period, before the election,” he suggested.
Sonoma County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) director Mark Bramfitt had said at a previous meeting that the only other dissolution he’d overseen involved a board that did just that — refused to meet — which forced LAFCO, the agency that oversees special districts, to dissolve the district on its own.
Board chair Dennis Colthurst rejected that idea. “Randy, I totally agree with you that we don't want to spend money where it’s not necessary, but I also believe that we have to take measured steps with counsel to make sure we do this clean and transparently … We have business to complete. I think it's our duty and our responsibility to the majority of the members of our district to do a neat and clean exit.”
Richard Power, who campaigned on a platform of dissolving the district, suggested that the district try its best to meet the original deadline for dissolution by submitting its dissolution application to LAFCO, with or without county approval.
“I would much rather give that money,”— the $74,796 to $124,660 for the election— “to the Gravenstein Health Action Chapter rather than run this election out, and I think that's a real incentive to get this thing done by the end of next month.”
Rich joins Dissolution Taskforce
In pursuit of this goal, the board also appointed attorney and former director of the Sebastopol Community Center Diane Rich to the district’s dissolution taskforce, which now has three members: Rich, Power and Thomas.
Former board member Jim Horn also offered his services for the dissolution taskforce — he’s part of a group petitioning to dissolve the district. Horn also offered up a draft dissolution application. Both offers were met by the board with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
Power ended the evening by urging the board to move with alacrity to wrap up the district’s affairs early to avoid having to pay for the election — and it wasn’t just about the money, he said. He warned that if an election took place in November, there were candidates in waiting who’d take the board in a direction current board members would find very unpleasant indeed.