Tempest in a teacup, Point Roberts-style

By Pat Grubb

Shannon Tomsen, Whatcom County Fire District 5 commissioner, at the April 5 Hospital District meeting.

When asked why local controversies always seem so overheated, former owner of the International Marketplace Craig Cole replied, “Because the stakes are so low.” Not much has changed around here since he uttered those words in 1992.

A seemingly mundane request by the Point Roberts Hospital District to the fire district to change the clinic’s signage has led to harsh words and accusations, bitter relations, over-the-top public record requests, multiple apologies and, of course, no new signs. As an added bonus, the All Point Bulletin was taken to the woodshed for a very public spanking (see sidebar). Could anywhere other than Point Roberts make such a mountain out of a molehill?

Last summer, fire district commissioner Shannon Tomsen suggested that each commissioner should act as a liaison with another local taxing district, with her taking the hospital district, Bill Meursing responsible for the parks, and Stan Riffle, the water district. Unlike the other two commissioners who have not attended any of their assigned district’s meetings, Tomsen took to her task with enthusiasm, showing up regularly at hospital district meetings. In turn, hospital commissioner Robin Nault began acting as her district’s liaison to the fire commission.

The hospital district, which operates the Ed Aydon Health Clinic, leases its clinic space at the Benson Road fire hall from the fire district. The medical services are provided by Unity Care NW (formerly Interfaith Community Health Center), a local non-profit healthcare provider affiliated with a national network of community health centers. Following the name change from Interfaith, Unity Care decided to standardize its signage across its facilities in Bellingham, Ferndale and Point Roberts.

In September, the hospital district’s new signage proposal went before the fire commission and if they were expecting a swift agreement, they were disabused of that notion. “There are a number of reasons to decline this request,” Tomsen said, adding she felt “very uncomfortable allowing any vendor to put up a sign on this public building.” [The sign was intended for the parking lot entrances.]

“This started as a local project and should remain one,” agreed Meursing. Riffle concurred and commissioners unanimously agreed the clinic could either keep its current sign, or have no sign at all. Nault said later she was disappointed in the decision and would have appreciated an opportunity for a dialogue about why her district supported new signage. “The sign we have now is not visible and it’s not professional,” she said.

Typically, commercial lessees have the option for signage but the hospital district’s lease with the fire district contains no stand-alone signage clause, leaving it with little leverage in the negotiation. At the subsequent hospital commission meeting, the board decided to shelve the issue.

Stewards of Public Lands

Fast forward to January 27 when the All Point Bulletin covered the hospital district meeting earlier that month at which time the subject of the sign was raised again. The story also reported that the commissioners wanted to have a deeper dialogue with the fire commission. The article spurred an angry email to hospital district executive director Elaine Komusi from Tomsen who wrote, “Letting us know via an article in the APB that the hospital district seeks “deeper communication” with the fire district was a poor choice on your part.” She reminded Komusi of a September meeting attended by Tomsen, Carleton and Komusi at which “we discussed the lack of respect the hospital district and Unity Care employees have for the fire district. Your decision to air your grievance about the sign in the APB … is a continuation of that.” She then blasted Komusi by writing, “You should understand how disingenuous your ‘desire’ for ‘deeper dialogue’ is … Unity Care wants that sign up and the hospital district is willing to say and do anything to achieve their goal – even if it means you are untruthful.”

According to Komusi, Tomsen told her that September that the fire district intended to follow the letter of the law when it came to the lease agreement and said hospital staff were no longer allowed to use the fire hall’s kitchen facilities or open a fire hall door that allowed air flow during the summer. When Komusi turned to Carleton and asked if that’s how he wanted things to go, Tomsen commanded her not to ask him, as she was making the rules. “That’s when I knew things had crossed a line, “Komusi said.

The fireworks continued at the fire commission’s February meeting when commissioners assailed Nault about the APB report and the re-opening of the sign issue. Riffle said, “It’s a public building – we do not do private advertising,” adding that the district does not allow painters or roofers working on the facility to put up signs while working there. Nault pointed out, “We are tenants. We pay rent for that space so why shouldn’t we be able to advertise?”

Tomsen, an early backer of the health clinic, said, “You made the decision to change the name of the clinic. Everything has changed. It now says Unity Care brought to you by the Point Roberts Hospital District … The hospital district is a taxpayer funded district. We are one of the few socialized medicine organizations in the country.” [There are 54 public hospital tax districts in Washington state’s 39 counties alone.] Tomsen continued, “You’ve got a sign up. Either that sign or no sign. That sign got you where you are today. Everyone who comes to that clinic comes because of that sign!”

In response, Nault said the two districts would have to go back to agreeing to disagree, adding, “It sounds very personal.” That prompted a furious response from Tomsen who, her face flushing and banging her pen on the table, said, “That is absolutely incorrect and I’m not going to let you say that! It is inappropriate for you guys to repeatedly say stuff about things being personal and about people from the past and needing to move on!”

“Public land is sacred. We are stewards of the public’s land and public money,” added Meursing. The three commissioners agreed to drop the issue.

The apologies and then the deluge

The March meeting of the fire district was marked by the tempestuous Tomsen, speaking telephonically. “I want to apologize for letting my temper get the best of me at our last meeting,” she told her fellow commissioners. “Without a doubt, I could have handled myself better and I again apologize for that.” She made a similar apology to Nault at a hospital district meeting.

Presumably feeling the need to atone, she told Riffle and Meursing that she had come up with “a really lame mockup” of a sign and had sent it to the hospital district for their consideration and apologized for bringing the subject up “as Bill was very clear” last month about ‘beating a dead horse.’

In an email exchange, Komusi discussed the mockup and thanked Tomsen for re-considering but pointed out that she would need time to present it to the board and make a response. Tomsen was adamant that the sign issue be wrapped up quickly and, beginning March 17 through 23, began emailing the hospital district with OPR requests asking for, among many other items, the district’s 2009 and 2017 budgets, lists of meeting attendees from September 2016 through January 2017, meeting minutes, draft letters, the hourly rate of pay for all employees and description on how hours are recorded, commissioner compensation, financial connections between employees, their families and Unity Care, quarterly presentation materials, service contracts, sign costs, and copies of all emails between Komusi and Robin Nault, Renée Coe, Natalié Davidson, Des Skubi, and Shanon Hardie for various periods beginning January 2016 to the date the OPR request was filled.

Komusi, who only works eight hours a week for the district, responded to Tomsen and said it would take her two weeks to fulfill the request. Dissatisfied, Tomsen called and emailed Nanci Krier, the state’s assistant attorney general for open government, accusing the hospital district of intentionally stalling. Responding, Krier advised her the attorney-general’s office did not consider two weeks to be an unreasonable length of time to assemble the multitude of records Tomsen had requested. On April 20, Tomsen emailed another OPR request to Komusi, this time asking for “any communication between anyone involved with the Point Roberts Hospital District and anyone at the All Point Bulletin from September 1, 2016 and the date this request is fulfilled.”

According to Komusi, Tomsen’s first 11 requests were answered within two weeks, her subsequent four requests were also responded to within two weeks and her most recent request regarding the APB was responded to in four days. In all, Komusi spent close to 25 hours fulfilling Tomsen’s multiple requests, including time spent talking to the district’s attorney.

The beating of the dead horse stops

On April 5, Tomsen once again attended the hospital district’s monthly meeting and audibly gasped when she saw the All Point Bulletin reporter walking in, perhaps because also in attendance was fellow fire commissioner Bill Meursing. From the beginning, the meeting was acrimonious, with constant interruptions by Tomsen. The issue of signage was brought up early, with Tomsen suggesting a possible sign maker who could make the sign less expensively than what had been projected by Unity Care in emails to Komusi. Tomsen had come across the correspondence as a result of her OPR request that she said she had made as a private citizen.

In response, Komusi said, “My issue is around communication and the public record requests made by commissioner Tomsen as a private citizen. You’re using the information to talk about the signs which makes it non-private … Eleven public record requests is not a public record request; it’s a full-on audit and I find it difficult to consider partnering with you on any kind of project.”

Tomsen appeared taken aback by Komusi’s comments and said, “I thought we were on the Yellow Brick Road, we were going ahead. I thought this would be the be-all, end-all.” She then laid out a timeline and process for getting the signs built. Weighing in, Nault said, “You wanted us to have three drafts by the end of this meeting. I don’t know how you could expect us to have three designs when we wouldn’t even meet until this meeting.”

Tomsen replied, “I could respond to that but I won’t because he [the All Point Bulletin reporter] is here.”

“If the goal is to have peace in the house, then we’re not going about it in the right way,” said Komusi, adding that since Tomsen had come aboard, there had been 43 events that engendered email threads whereas previously she had three or four emails from the chief. “I generally come home at night and there’s an email from you and often they are not very polite. Even our lawyer said I don’t have to respond to these argumentative and repetitive requests,” Komusi stated.

Following further discussion, hospital commissioner Kandace Harper said, “We might not be ready to do anything until the fall,” to which Tomsen replied, “And I would have lost interest in the sign. You don’t need to rush but we need to rush.” Meursing then addressed the board, saying, “Speaking as a private individual, again because I need to be careful, I would like to suggest, as a private individual, that you write the fire district that you want to table the issue and that the fire district should table it too.”

On April 12, the fire commissioners met for their regular monthly meeting. Chair Bill Meursing told fellow commissioners, “We should put the signage issue to a rest for awhile – they deserve a rest and we deserve a rest. Let’s start working on a relationship we can be proud of, no stabbing anymore. It’s a small town, we should be able to do that, let’s treat everyone with respect. The sign is dead, in my opinion.”

The Tempest in a Teacup was over.

Ouch. The All Point Bulletin gets taken to the woodshed.

On April 19, the All Point Bulletin submitted an Open Public Records (OPR) request to  fire chief Christopher Carleton and copied the district’s attorney as instructed in earlier OPR submissions. The OPR requested emails, letters or other forms of communication sent or received by fire commissioners and staff that referenced the hospital district.

The APB pointed out in a three-person board, two commissioners together constitute a quorum. As both Tomsen and Meursing were discussing the sign question, they were essentially conducting fire district business outside of an official regular or special meeting, which is not allowed under the state’s open public meeting act.

The APB’s OPR request also pointed out that, while Tomsen claimed she was submitting her hospital district OPR requests as a private citizen, she was using the information received to conduct fire district business.

By so doing, the APB asserted, it opened up to disclosure any emails sent from fire district or personal email accounts that involved the hospital district. The letter pointed out previous APB OPR requests had discovered a consistent disregard to the Act by the district.

On April 24, the fire district called a special meeting of the board. Speaking nervously from a prepared statement and wearing a fire district 5 shirt, commissioner Shannon Tomsen announced that she had asked for this meeting to be held to discuss the OPR request made by the APB.

“In addition to all his inaccuracies, Pat Grubb’s [APB] email included numerous and repeated threats to me, Bill and this district … if we don’t defend ourselves against this sort of fallacious attack, then we will be seen as either weak or tacitly admitting guilt to him … I propose that we authorize our attorney to send a letter refuting the fallacious claims and statements he made in his April 19 email as our attorney sees fit.” Again, without citing any evidence, Tomsen accused Grubb of making threats and intimidation.

Meursing said he’d like to go further and instruct the attorney to only communicate with the APB’s attorney. After more discussion, the commission voted in favor of the motion proposed by Tomsen.

Tomsen went to the item on the agenda which dealt with advertising in newspapers. She proposed “a resolution prohibiting the expenditure of any taxpayer funds in any publication owned by Pat Grubb or his wife Louise Mugar.” Commissioner Stan Riffle complained about the cost of advertising and said fire district information should be considered public service information. Meursing agreed with the other two.

[In 2016, the fire district purchased six ads in the newspaper and electronic version for a total of $725, charged at the non-profit ad rate. Ad design and color charges were provided at no charge.]

Chief Carleton spoke up, telling the commissioners that as fire chief, he needed to be able to educate the public and that he needed to be able to reach a wide audience. After agreeing to allow the chief to ask for exceptions, the commission voted to prohibit advertising in the All Point Bulletin.

Tomsen then asked about an email Carleton had received from Grubb concerning the recent delayed posting of fire district meeting videos which had pointed out that they were often being posted after the APB’s press date. Carleton said that he had telephoned Grubb and, “I explained the process involved in producing and posting the videos to Pat who thanked me and who also sent an email thanking me.”

Commissioners then approved a motion instructing Carleton not to post the videos until noon on the last Friday of each month which, coincidentally, happens to be the day the APB is printed.

Finally, Tomsen announced that she did not intend to stand for re-election as a fire commissioner in November but would be running for the hospital district.

The only hospital district seat open this election is currently held by Robin Nault who intends to run for re-election.

  1. The Fire Commissioners have apparently reached the end of their willingness and abilities. It’s time they all resigned in order to begin anew with more progressive participants and policy for the Fire District. I am deeply sorry and ashamed for our community to have to write this.

    Reply

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