King County Superior Court Judge Michael Trickey ruled on Tuesday that Chris Clifford’s recall petition of Valley Medical Center/Hospital District 1 Commissioner Don Jacobson isn’t sufficient.
The decision means Clifford’s efforts to have Jacobson removed from office by recall election have come screeching to a halt, though he has the opportunity to appeal the ruling to the state Supreme Court.
Clifford, a Renton resident and open-government crusader, argued the merits of his recall petition during a sufficiency hearing in court April 3, claiming that Jacobson had violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act and abused his power as president of the board of commissioners by circumventing its bylaws.
Jacobson’s attorney, Scott Johnson, argued that the recall petition was without merit and not worth wasting the court’s time.
David Burman, an attorney from the firm of Perkins Cooie retained to represent the hospital, was granted a motion to intervene on behalf of Valley Medical but was limited to a narrow scope of argument.
Clifford pointed to the discussion of an ethics code at the commissioners’ education retreat in December. He argued that though the meeting was properly noticed, it was held 150 miles outside of the district, and that the meeting agenda that was published never mentioned discussion of a proposed ethics code.
“There is no notice of a business meeting in this notice,” Clifford said. “Even if it was part of the education seminar, it wasn’t part of the minutes, not part of the notice. They didn’t even put it on the agenda that they were going to talk about (the ethics code). This is an absolutely egregious violation of the open meetings act.”
He argued that it was a violation because they had a business discussion and created new policy which was later passed without discussion at the commissioners’ Dec. 17 meeting.
Valley Medical’s attorney disputed that point.
“It is clear that it was an open public meeting,” Burman said. “There’s no substantive violation, much less an intentional violation by Mr. Jacobson.”
Burman, in representing the hospital, said there are concerns this recall petition could discourage other qualified candidates from running for the hospital board.
“It would deter people from serving,” Burman said. “It would cause them to second-guess others and it would cause administrative workings to grind to a halt.”
He also asserted that Clifford’s suggestion that the open meetings act be strictly interpreted wasn’t meeting with the spirit and intent of the law.
“There’s nothing in the bylaws or the Open Public Meeting Act that states they should be interpreted strictly,” Berman said.
Clifford also took issue with Jacobson’s alleged unauthorized unilateral creation of a subcommittee, as well as statements made regarding a closed-door review of the state Public Disclosure Commission’s investigation into campaign finance violations in 2005 and 2006, for which Valley Medical chief executive officer Rich Roodman later agreed to pay fines.
Jacobson, the hospital board’s president, “has served on school boards,” Clifford said. “He’s served on this (hospital) board for many years. He know the open meetings law. It is a duty of the president to know his powers.”
Berman refuted Clifford’s arguments, saying “there is nothing in the facts presented by Mr. Clifford that shows” malicious intent.
Clifford said he was disappointed by the judge’s ruling.
“What I find most frustrating is that factually, I proved three of” the allegations, he said. “I have problems when I’ve shown three factually sufficient grounds and then get told, ‘It just wasn’t enough bad stuff.’ How much bad stuff is he supposed to do? I’m not really sure that is the standard of recall in this state.”
Trickey’s written ruling will be available April 23. Clifford said he’ll decide after that whether to appeal it.
Hospital officials felt vindicated by the judge’s decision, according to Valley Medical spokeswoman Dana Vander Houwen.
“The hospital itself was a party to this proceeding — not just Commissioner Jacobson — because many of the allegations were really criticisms of our long-standing management committee structure, and the judge acknowledged that we were an appropriate party,” Vander Houwen said. “The judge found all nine of the allegations either factually or legally insufficient to sustain a recall petition. He also found that our hospital committee structure that has been in place for years is appropriate and not at odds with the Open Public Meetings Act. We are very pleased with the judgment.”
Vander Houwen said that “from the beginning,” hospital officials believed that Clifford’s claims “were ill-founded, politically motivated acts, and we hope that he takes a serious look at what (he) is actually doing: Distracting management from what they are here to do – provide comprehensive, quality healthcare to residents of the hospital district and the many others we serve.”