Staff E-mails give a behind-the-scenes look at the Columbia Health District's dissolution and transfer of power
by: Photo illustration by Stover E. Harger III

A series of recently released Columbia Health District emails underscores board actions following its announcement at the beginning of the year to cease efforts on the construction of a publicly funded hospital, on which the district spent more than $4 million.

One wrinkle, though: More than a year's worth of health district emails-from August 2009 to March 2011, during the height of the health district's push to obtain state certification for the hospital-is missing.

Nonetheless, what remains of the correspondence has been released even as a nominating committee for the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County, the public nonprofit now tasked with overseeing the county's Public Health Authority, puts the finishing touches on its compilation of a nine-person board of directors.

The email correspondence between health district officials sent last spring also sheds new light on a political process clouded by the shifting priorities of the former health district and the county, along with a lack of clarity in the planned dissolution process.

At the beginning of the year, the CHD board contemplated dropping its permanent tax rate from 38 cents to slightly more than seven cents per $1,000 of assessed home value. The decision came after district voters overwhelmingly supported a November ballot initiative calling for dissolution of the district.

By early March, health district Chairman Jay Tappan said dissolving and re-forming the health district was something the district 'would like to do in the future.' But there remained questions as to what the district would look like afterwards, especially as it became clear its board members did not want to run for reelection in May.

March 1, 10:11 a.m.

From: Pam Powell [CHD communications coordinator]

To: Diane Hutson [CHD board member]

I believe the Board is on a good path to put a memorial measure for the $0.077 cents on the May ballot and to continue moving toward a countywide district…. Having a strong board and a contract with the county to provide public health services is the best place to be if CHD wants to look at changing how it provides services. That said, staff needs to know for sure who among our current board is running and who is not. Incumbents are most electable, and we have an electable board.

March 1, 10:28 a.m.

From: Diane Hutson

To: Pam Powell

Sorry Pam, but I am not going to run. There is interest from [Columbia County Mental Health] to combine services with public health. I'm thinking this is the best option to preserve jobs and services and I'd like to speak more about it to other board members.

Health district officials began contemplating the dissolution of the district when hospital-project opponents announced they would run for CHD seats in the May election. Board member Diane Hutson, an administrator at OHSU Family Medicine in Scappoose, voiced her concerns about a CHD board takeover.

March 1, 11:21 a.m.

From: Diane Hutson

To: Pam Powell; Karen Ladd [public health administrator]; Jay Tappan [CHD board chairman]

[Oregon Health and Sciences University] just cannot move this quickly and I feel the urgency to protect my agency from a hostile board and protect my clinic from all negative media that has occurred from my involvement on the board. I believe in the work you've done at [public health] and want to see it continue.

Health district officials began to discuss reconfiguring public health services, with the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County overseeing the agency. That public nonprofit organization had previously provided fundraising support for the hospital project, but little was known about it.

After the Spotlight published a story about the foundation in March, health district and public health officials stopped talking about it publicly.

March 31, 12:57 p.m.

From: Karen Ladd

To: Jay Tappan

Henry Heimuller came by today to pick up a copy of our budget as well as our last audit. He was in some distress over the latest edition of the Spotlight tabloid. He thinks we've done an awful job of PR.

He says Earl [Fisher] is still out there talking to agencies regarding taking on public health….

I think we need a special meeting early next week to move to discontinue the [intergovernmental agreement] and let the commissioners do whatever they will do [with public health].

April 4, 7:41 a.m.

From: Jay Tappan

To: Karen Ladd

I need to get a letter on the [Public Health Authority] termination over to the Commissioners by their Wednesday meeting. And in a cautionary note, let's not talk to anyone about the [Public Health Foundation of Columbia County] until much later in this. I suspect we have said too much at our last Board meeting about that (mainly me, I think). From here on out, we just need to talk dissolution so that the angry folks who are going to take over as CHD Board members will not be able to un-do the process. Regardless, they will not have the [Public Health Authority] by that time anyway.

Though the health district wanted to hand oversight of the Public Health Authority to the public health foundation, Commissioner Earl Fisher, charged with shepherding the CHD through its dissolution, began looking at alternative options. At the top of his list was Oregon Health and Sciences University.

April 5, 9:49 a.m.

From: Jay Tappan

To: Karen Ladd

I think we are on good footing with the Commissioners in terms of them not screwing us out of a deal after July 1. It's always possible that they could turn a deal with OHSU down stream, but they could actually do that regardless, even if CHD stayed intact somehow. I may be wrong about all this, but I think what's driving them is a total fear of working with crazy people They also live in fear of the public perception that we're pulling a fast one on this. [snip]

Like I outlined yesterday, first we sunset the [Public Health Authority], then we ask them to start the dissolution process. The crazies will not have a district to inherit, or at least they will be stuck with one that is being erased….

April 7, 10:35 a.m.

From: Karen Ladd

To: Jay Tappan; Gary Heide [CHD board member]; Lisa Galovich [CHD board member]; Diane Hutson; Public Health

Earl came by this morning. I told him some of the tasks that I felt I needed to proceed with. He agreed. I also shared with him that they are only hearing from the angry people and that (given [Commissioner Henry Heimuller's] comment in the commissioners meeting yesterday about wanting public comment), we will be rallying our folks that support public health services to give positive public health messages. He said he would be willing to talk to the staff if I wanted because he knew they are terribly stressed. I told him no thanks. I do not want him talking to our staff given his performance at the strategic meeting. The staff are still talking about that and are convinced he is 'anti' public health. Public health services are valuable to all our communities and families. We need continuation of public health services. Public health is good. We are proceeding with those messages.

On July 1, the health district dissolved.

As planned, the public health foundation took over the health district's role of providing policy guidance to the Public Health Authority. The foundation's board is being expanded from five members to nine to accommodate its new role.

Tappan, who still sits on the foundation's board, is expected to step down at the board's next meeting this month.

A committee has already named seven of its planned nine board members, according to current chair Dan Garrison.

The names offer a who's who of officials, including former County Commissioner Rita Bernhard, Clatskanie Mayor Diane Pohl, former retired nurse Charleen Pruett, Vernonia Health Center board member Heather Lewis, St. Helens accountant Dan Garrison, Columbia River Fire and Rescue Division Chief Brian Burright and Rainier School District Superintendent Michael Carter.

The foundation will oversee public health for one year, Garrison said.