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Public health as non-profit would mean less public oversight

There's agreement among Columbia Health District board members and public health officials: In light of the health district's scuttled hospital project, oversight of public health services should be moved from an elected board to a private nonprofit, whose organizational structure would keep meetings closed to the public and place a tighter lid on financial documents.

The health district board unanimously voted on March 14 to start work on a three-way contract between Columbia County, the health district and what's known as the Public Health Foundation to move oversight of public health to the foundation.

Jay Tappan, board chairman of the health district, also sits on the Public Health Foundation's board.

That vote, and a subsequent press release from the health district highlighting it, drew a sharp rebuke from County Commissioner Tony Hyde, who said the health district did not have the authority to spearhead that contract.

The county is in charge of authorizing intergovernmental agreements for its public health service.

Nonetheless, a move toward a private nonprofit appears possible, even though not much is known about the eight year-old Public Health Foundation, even among its current and former board members. And much of what is known is not being shared publicly.

The reluctance to release financial records and other details about the Public Health Foundation, which was organized to support the development of the health district's publicly funded hospital project, may foreshadow a future public health agency less obligated to divulge information than its current counterpart.

'[The foundation] was supposed to activate interest in the hospital project from the beginning,' said Ann McConnell, vice chair of the foundation. 'It was supposed to be a sounding board for that project.'

But for years the foundation has been receiving large financial contributions.

In both 2004 and 2005 the foundation received $2,500 in gifts, grants or contributions. For each consecutive year, as the hospital project progressed, the foundation reported significantly more money: $36,875 in 2006, $65,250 in 2007 and $69,990 in 2008, according to a 2009 Internal Revenue Service filing.

Ashley Swanson is a coordinator for public health and was a board member for the foundation. She served as the foundation's treasurer until she recently resigned from that post. She would not give a date for her resignation and would not say where the money came from. She said any request for information had to appear in writing and mailed to a Scappoose post office box.

Josette Hugo, listed as a former treasurer for the foundation, said she also did not know where the money came from. Her knowledge is limited because she only served as the treasurer for five months, she said.

Gary Heide, a member of the health district's board and the person responsible for creating the foundation in 2003, said he doesn't believe the money came from CHD coffers.' I have no idea where that came from,' Heide said.