In a rural county with a small population, many of our essential services are governed by districts. These districts have publicly elected boards. In other words, they are responsible to the people they serve. This matters, because it means we count on these largely volunteer boards to make the right decisions in order to keep some of our primary services in place.
Since I’ve returned to working at the newspaper, I’ve been covering Plumas Unified School District, and Feather River College, a community college district. When I first worked at the paper 10 years ago, I covered Plumas District Hospital and Eastern Plumas Health Care, which are both special districts.
Besides local governance, all of these districts get an allocation of tax money to help defray costs. They also, on occasion, go to the voters to request a bond issue to help pay for expensive short-term projects, such as renovations or new buildings.
Recently, the EPHC Board “unanimously voted to terminate the employment of CEO Todd Plimpton” after nine months on the job. That, combined with my current observations regarding FRC board interactions with its president, have highlighted once again the importance of these elected board positions. Board candidates often run with little or no opposition, and are elected with a minimum of votes.
I don’t think the public, for the most part, understands that they can change their hospital or their community college with their vote. Further, I’m not sure they realize their tax money goes to pay for the services these organizations provide.
I believe that, for the most part, these boards have members who serve because they believe in the organization they help run. But, what happens when a local hospital, which is also a critical access hospital (there is no other provider of essential medical services with in 30 miles) hires a CEO who makes major changes to the organization and is then gone nine months later? A number of those changes can’t be undone. Nor can the erosion of employee morale and community support be healed overnight. What should the board and administration do to mitigate the damage? What can they do?
And, what are the necessary steps to make sure this scenario doesn’t happen again? It is imperative that the board have a good working relationship with the administration of the organization they serve. Further, laws and regulations stipulate that district boards only have one employee to hire and oversee — the president or CEO of that organization. They aren’t supposed to meddle in day-to-day affairs or direct other employees.
Therefore, they must rely on an administration that is transparent about what is going on within. They need to be given a true financial picture, an understanding of strategic direction. They need to understand whether or not quality standards are being maintained, and they must ensure that laws, ethical standards and the organizations mission and values are being followed.
Since the only person they oversee directly is the CEO, they have to trust that he or she is giving them an honest assessment of the workings of the organization. But, what happens if that is not the case? A board should cheerlead for their organization. But, they must serve as its watchdog, as well.
And, in the case of a critical access hospital, if they fail at that — the hospital potentially could end up closing. This isn’t a far fetched notion. EPHC managed the unusual by surviving bankruptcy 20 years ago. I wouldn’t want to rely on another miracle to ensure its survival.
In the other recent case I’ve observed, FRC has a board member who is determined to go it alone. Again, community college rules, laws, and ethics demand that the board act as one, and that they deal directly with the president and only the president.
But, a board member has concerns, and says that if he’s not allowed to “investigate” then the board is not doing its job. The rest of the FRC board, working together as one, disagrees.
According to Kevin Trutna, FRC’s president, this board member is violating the accreditation code and possibly could put the college’s accreditation in jeopardy. If FRC lost its accreditation, financial aid funding and its standing as a quality college would be lost. This would be a devastating blow to the college. What happens, then, when a board member takes his watchdog duties to the extreme, potentially jeopardizing the very institution he is charged to protect?
These recent cases remind us not just how important these organizations are, but also how fragile. They highlight the fact that electing quality board members and holding them accountable is vital. Finally, when we go about our daily lives, not even thinking about how much we need these boards and administrators to do the right thing, we might want to think again.