At what was supposed to be its last meeting before dissolution, the Palm Drive Health Care District (PDHCD) board voted 3-2 to grant Gravenstein Health Action, formerly the board’s community health subcommittee, $200,000 in seed money to fund its transition to a new nonprofit organization. Gail Thomas, Eira Klich-Heartt and Dennis Colthurst voted in favor of the grant, while Richard Power and an obviously torn Randy Coffman voted against it.
A new nonprofit is born
Palm Drive Health District director Alanna Brogan introduced the proposal to fund Gravenstein Health Action almost as a fait accompli. She said the organization had already filed for its nonprofit status with the state and federal government and that it would get the nod from the state before the dissolution takes place, allowing it to set up a bank account and receive funds.
Depicting the organization, newly named the Gravenstein Health Action Coalition, as a community institution worthy of preserving, she said, “We've been providing district residents with community health services designed to mitigate the need for emergency medical interventions and which have become important to district residents and that they have come to rely on since 2015,” Brogan said.
She then proceeded to read much of the transition proposal for Gravenstein Health Action aloud.
Most surprising was the long list of local luminaries who had lined up to populate the board of the new nonprofit, including City Councilmember Una Glass, West County Health Centers Chief Administrative Officer Ellen Bauer, West County Community Services Director Tim Miller and Graton Fire Chief Bill Bullard. Supervisor Lynda Hopkins has also agreed to appoint a 5th district representative as well.
Opponents of the district, including Jim Horn, Gayle Bergmann, Gary and Carolyn Harris and a host of others, were predictably appalled.
Horn once again questioned the “legality of giving public funds to this organization for these purposes” and said that the language of the parcel tax measures that created and supported the health care district “were intended to support the hospital with the emergency room … It was never intended for the money to be spent on an organization like this. The voters never approved this sort of expenditure.”
“This district is still $20 million-plus in debt,” he reminded the board. “This money could be used to help pay a little bit of that debt and save us (the taxpayers) on interest as well. And you're completely ignoring the issue of the basic illegality of using Measure W funds for this.”
Opponents argued until the end of the public comment period.
“A lot of these are good programs,” Sebastopol resident Tom Boag said of Gravenstein Health Action and the organizations it has supported. “I know the people that run them; I work with them all the time. But I think it's really wrong that you would consider using public money that has been entrusted to your board in this way. You're basically stealing. It's not right for you to assume that you have the authority to use that money at your discretion ... It's the worst kind of theft. It's like working for a company and when you get fired or you quit, you walk off with all the furniture and steal the door knobs. It's really not an appropriate thing for the board to consider.”
Sukey Robb Wilder reminded the board of the May 29 letter from Sonoma County tax assessor Erick Roeser, whose office will be taking over the district’s finances after dissolution. In that letter, Roeser said he wasn’t sure the district’s revenues were enough to cover its debts and explicitly warned them not to enter into any more contracts with other organizations. He also said that if they granted money to an outside organization, he retained the right to claw it back if necessary.
But there were defenders of the proposal among the board watchers as well, including registered nurses Sandra Debella Bodley and Mary Lou Schmidt and retired city planner Marsha Sue Lustig, all three of whom will be on the board of the new nonprofit. Several others spoke of the good works of Gravenstein Health Action and their importance to the community, including the city of Sebastopol's Public Safety Outreach Coordinator Skip Jirrels.
One person who won’t be on the new board of the newly renamed Gravenstein Health Action Coalition is Brogan herself.
“That’s very true. I’m headed for retirement,” she said in response to a question from PDHCD board member Richard Power.
When the vote came, the ayes were made without comment, but nays came with long explanations.
It was clear that Coffman’s heart was with the new nonprofit, but he said he felt it was rushed — “We should have been working on this nine months ago” — and that he’d received only one email in favor of the grant in a sea of emails opposed. With a heavy heart, he voted no.
Power blew out all the stops in explaining his no vote.
“I have read the Hanson-Bridgett report,” he said, referring to a report the district ordered on the legality of giving grants for public health purposes, “and I think it tells us that we cannot fund this proposal,” Power said. In addition, he said another board member (he didn’t say who) had told him they “‘didn’t give a damn what the report said because the money should be spent this way.’”
“That was a pretty shocking statement, but it tells me that in some ways, I’ve been playing against a stacked deck. And so I'm going to vote against this for these reasons,” he said.
But the math was clear, and now the Gravenstein Health Action Coalition, Sebastopol’s newest nonprofit, is $200,000 richer.
Three other surprises
The Gravenstein Health Action vote wasn’t the only surprise of the evening.
At the beginning of the meeting, PDHCD attorney Bill Adams said that the board had changed its mind and decided to make the Hanson Bridgett report public after the dissolution and on the condition that the county agreed to do so.
He also said the board was serving AAMG, the private company that bought the hospital in 2019, with a letter of default because it had closed the hospital’s urgent care, something it’s not allowed to do for 10 years under its sales contract with the district. This could open the way for the district (or more likely its successor, the county) to get an additional $1.2 million more from AAMG, money that would most likely be used to help pay off the district’s $26 million debt.
The final surprise came in a last-minute email from Mark Bramfitt of LAFCO, the agency overseeing the district’s dissolution. The news was that LAFCO would not be able to vote on the district’s dissolution by July 1 as planned and that the vote had been moved to Aug. 1.
This means the district will live another month — and have another board meeting. The next Palm Drive Health Care District board meeting is scheduled for July 6.