Clean sweep: WMC board whittled to one member
WRANGELL — In the end, the special election to recall 8 members of the Wrangell Medical Center Board of Directors accomplished what it set out to do – removal of all those facing recall.
The recall, which evolved from an effort spearheaded by Wrangell residents Gary Allen, Sr., and Mike Otteson, Sr., asked voters in the borough to remove board president Mark Robinson, and board members Jake Harris, Linda Bjorge, Lurine McGee, Delores Norman, Jim Nelson, Sylvia Ettefagh and Leanne Rinehart.
Board member Dorothy Hunt-Sweat was the sole member not facing recall and now sits as the only elected member of the group.
196 absentee ballots were cast in the election.
The Borough Assembly ratified the special election during their May 1 meeting, with mayor Jeremy Maxand, and members Bill Privett, David Jack and Mike Symons voting in favor of the resolution. Assembly members Don McConachie, Pam McCloskey and Wilma Stokes voted against the measure.
Laura Salard, a representative of Citizens United for Quality Healthcare, a group advocating the recall, gave a statement after the vote.
“Clearly the voters of Wrangell wanted our elected officials to be held to the highest legal and ethical standards,” she said. “Now, it’s time to get to the business of building a new hospital.”
WMC CEO Noel Rea said he believes the origin of the recall was based on a pair of very different issues.
“From what I have seen, there were two common themes that this recall was about,” Rea said. “There were folks opposed to the building of the new hospital back in November, and more recently there were a group of folks talking about the credentialing issue with Dr. (Greg) Salard.”
Rea also said he felt the recall campaign was directed at him as well.
“These people also felt that if they recalled the board that there was some way to get rid of me as CEO. The mayor has also been pretty vocal about seeing me out of my position,” Rea added.
Robinson, who had been board president since the retirement of former
president Lynne Campbell, concurred with Rea’s assessment – but laid more blame at the feet of those against the construction of a new hospital.
“The recall, overall, has stemmed from the unsuccessful attempt to stop the hospital last year,” Robinson said. “Many of those who fought the hospital were behind this recall as well.”
In terms of the win, Allen said he felt that public support for the attempt to unseat board members took a turn once the terms of Rea’s employment contract were brought to light.
“I felt pretty good about this process all along,” Allen said. “But when they gave him that last raise, it really changed a lot of people’s minds. And especially with the severance pay in there. If they really wanted to not bring attention to this, they should have waited until after the election to give him that raise.”
On June 18, the day before the election, Robinson raised the issue of whether the recall was valid under rules set forth by the federal government.
“My concern is that if the election has not been sanctioned, is it a valid election?” Robinson said. “From the beginning the opposition has been quoted as saying they are doing things correctly. So, the question I have is whether the borough did right by having the election without the pre-clearance in hand.”
The State of Alaska is required to receive approval of the U.S. Department of Justice for all elections and for redistricting under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The DOJ involvement is especially important, Maxand added, in states with a heavy minority population like Alaska.
“We applied to the DOJ for this election and anticipate no problems receiving pre-clearance,” Maxand said.
The DOJ clearance letter that was expected by 5 p.m. on June 18 did not arrive by that deadline. However, borough clerk Christie Jamieson said she did not feel this would result in a negative outcome for the legality of the election.
“I have followed up with the pre-clearance submission through DOJ’s voting section 5 and they have stated they are very backed up, so this is just a matter of time,” she said.
When asked if the election could legally go forward, Jamieson said she believed it could.
“From my understanding, yes, the election can go forward,” Jamieson added.
Maxand added that the failure to receive the letter on time was of no importance to the election progressing.
“The election is moving forward regardless,” Maxand added. “The approval could come later on, though if the DOJ comes back and says there is all kinds of funny business regarding minority populations, or other things going on, that could be a problem. But, we have never had that happen before.”
According to Maxand, Borough Attorney Bob Blasco said the election moving forward without prior DOJ clearance is a normal occurrence.
“Mr. Blasco has been in touch with DOJ in Washington, D.C. and they are aware that the election is happening and at no point told us we should not proceed,” Maxand said. “And in fact, they said elections do occur regularly without the prior DOJ clearance. DOJ said they don't anticipate any problems and are working to get us the letter.”
In a June 12 memorandum to Borough Manager Tim Rooney, Blasco also recommended that the borough “not provide legal opinions to citizens answering hypothetical questions,” when it came to what process might be used to replace recalled members.
Jake Harris – Recalled, 330-295
Mark Robinson – Recalled, 399-226
Linda Bjorge – Recalled, 414-210
Lurine McGee – Recalled, 389-234
Delores Norman – Recalled, 376-247
Jim Nelson – Recalled, 382-243
Sylvia Ettefagh – Recalled, 381-241
Leanne Rinehart – Recalled, 393-229