There were nostalgic speeches from board members but no tears at the Palm Drive Health Care District board meeting on Feb. 3, when board president Dennis Colthurst put forth a motion asking the staff to prepare a resolution to dissolve the district.
After a long paean to all the board and hospital had achieved over the years, he said, “I make a motion to direct staff to take the steps necessary to petition for dissolution of this district with a goal to complete the process on or about June 30, 2020. It cannot be done overnight.”
It was a moment many of the almost 60 people in the crowded meeting room had been waiting for for years, but there was no applause, no whoops of joy, only a strange and sudden silence as the realization sunk in that this was it — the board was giving up the fight.
In the beginning
The board meeting began as Palm Drive Health Care board meetings often do — with a deflection. In this case, board attorney William Arnone announced that the San Francisco law firm Hanson Bridgett wouldn’t write a summary version for the public of its opinion about whether the district could use Measure W funds on something other than the hospital.
“Hanson Bridgett did not prepare a revised version of their original opinion and will be confirming in writing their recommendation against release of that opinion or any summary thereof,” Arnone said.
Then came the usual parade of outraged citizens at the podium during public comment.
A presentation on the district’s most recent audit elicited the same response.
For the edification of the public and the board, Mark Bramfitt from LAFCO (the Local Agency Formation Commission) gave a presentation on the process of dissolution: how it could be done and what would happen next.
He discussed the four pathways to dissolution. A special district can be dissolved by a vote of the board of supervisors, a vote of the LAFCO board, a petition by citizens or a resolution by the board of the special district.
In the case of Palm Drive, he said only the latter two seemed politically viable and both would cost about $10,000 to achieve. (The money goes primarily to pay for the work of LAFCO’s outside counsel.)
Bramfitt explained that, if the district dissolved, the county would take over the task of paying the district’s bankruptcy and bond debts. District landowners, including those in the detached areas, would have to continue paying their parcel taxes for several years until those debts are paid off.
As to the ultimate effect of dissolution of the district, Bramfitt had this to say:
“The last thing I have for you is the effect of dissolution … I rarely like to read from code because I think my job is to interpret the code in layman’s terms for you. But I think this is worth reading. ‘On and after the effective date of the dissolution of the district, the district shall be dissolved, disincorporated and extinguished. Its existence shall be terminated, and all of its corporate powers shall cease.’ It is a dead parrot, if you're familiar with that,” he said referring to the Monty Python skit.
One jokester asked if that last part was in the code.
The end of the future
After Bramfitt’s report, long-time board member Gail Thomas tipped the board’s hand when she announced that the district’s Futures Committee had met for the last time because they had, it seemed, concluded that the district had no future.
She listed off all the ideas they’d come up with, and then explained why each one wouldn’t work.
“Basically where we came down was, the mobile clinic is a great idea, but only if we still had the coast. The urgent care we really can’t afford to run independently. A free clinic, we probably can’t afford to run independently for several years. There are a lot of ambulance services in the area already. We looked at how we could reduce the health care costs in the community, but we couldn’t find a real way to get to that. We do have a robust Community Health Program, but we really feel that that would require the community’s decision. So we’ve pretty much abandoned the idea of having town hall meetings, on the basis that there really isn't a whole lot we could present for people to consider. And we’re saying, you know, if people really want to move into a public health program, then we probably need the voters to say that in a measure.”
The room exploded into applause at the end of this statement.
Knowing when it’s time to go
Before he made his motion for a resolution to dissolve the district, Colthurst began with a heartfelt statement.
“I have walked the halls of this hospital for 41 years,” he said. “It’s really part of my heart, and I believe this hospital has a breathing life.”
He spoke of his involvement in the long saga to keep the hospital open and to help it recover from bankruptcy.
“The hospital was re-opened on October 30, 2015. So far 90,000 patients have been served since that day. Obviously there have been tremendous financial issues. And this board has tried to solve those, realizing as of late that we really weren’t or shouldn't be in the business of running a hospital. And so came the sale of this hospital to AAMG, which I think was a wise decision. I think they have a good business plan to make it successful.
“This board served you well,” he said. “And I say that with conviction. Whether we disagree on certain items, well, that’s democracy. We have had a democracy, and we have listened to the public … we have done well for the district.”
After Colthurst’s motion, the other members of the board had their say.
Randy Coffman began his send off with a personal story about the dangers of not having an acute care hospital in Sebastopol.
“My assistant died just a couple of weeks before Christmas. She lived behind Safeway and the ambulance picked her up and took her to Kaiser. It took 40 minutes to get to Kaiser. She died as she was being unloaded. So losing the emergency room really hurts,” he said.
Coffman mentioned several things the district had done in the past and could do in the future to improve the health of the people in the district, “if we still owned the hospital, but we no longer own a hospital. And I’m in full support with the dissolution of the district. We all need to look in the mirror and go, ‘You know what? We've worked hard to try to make it work. The sale is done … This is done now. It’s over.’”
Thomas said she was proud that the district had “stabilized” the hospital, even if that meant turning it over to a private company. She thanked everyone on the board and said, with a slight hitch in her voice, “We’ve worked so hard.”
Eira Klich-Heartt began by acknowledging that “every single hospital in the county has known that we’ve been struggling and haven’t come forward and that’s been very telling,” she said about the district’s long search for a partner.
“This board has worked tirelessly at resolving the bankruptcy, making the employees a priority, getting our bonds turned around,” she said. “In four years, we have done an incredible amount. It’s been a great place to work. But I think the time has come.”
Richard Power, who had run for election on the platform of dissolution, agreed that the district had come to the end of the line.
He then turned his attention to the issue of the legal opinion from Hanson Brigdett, noting that it was a matter of public record that the report would be covered by attorney-client privilege.
“So that's not a trick. It was always that way. The report has been made to the district. These board members represent you, the voters. And that's how governments are structured. That’s how this one this has been done.”
Then he added, “But presuming and assuming that this (the dissolution) moves ahead, I will strongly support the idea of releasing that report.”
Among the many who got up to thank the board for their decision that evening was Jim Horn, former Palm Drive District board member, one of the board’s most implacable critics, and one of the founders of a recent effort to dissolve the district via petition.
“I just wanted to thank the board very much for everything that you've said today. I was on the board for three years. We had a number of disagreements during that time, but I know that all of you are volunteers. Nobody gets paid on this board, contrary to public opinion … This is public service at its finest. I wish more politicians in Washington had been on school boards and special districts before they decided to run for something higher.”
He then urged them to release the Hanson Bridgett report.
“I really appreciate Richard’s comment about releasing that opinion,” he said. “I think it really would help ease the transition and provide everybody with a roadmap of what can or can’t be done going forward.”
What happens to the petition drive?
After the meeting, Horn said he expected to continue the petition drive to keep the district’s feet to the fire and make sure the dissolution process proceeded apace.
One of the other founders of the petition drive, Alan Murakami, graciously thanked board members for their service during public comment, but added that in one month, more than 1,200 registered voters have signed the petition to dissolve the district, about half of what’s need to take the petition before LAFCO. They have five more months to gather signatures.
During public comment, Horn asked Bramfitt how this was going to work.
“I wonder, since we have already begun the petition process and we already have a lot of signatures, what happens if we continue on that track and the district votes to dissolve itself … is there like a race or what happens exactly?”
With a smile, Bramfitt gave LAFCO’s address and said, “First one in the door.”
“With a check,” Horn suggested.
“With the check,” Bramfitt agreed.