Hospital Administrator escorted out by board chair Helen Casey
“We are going to fix that problem…. Then the motion for a new resolution (to terminate) will have to be introduced and passed in strict compliance with the statute.”
Mick Howe, Attorney
North Valley Hospital District
“There is a problem with North Valley Hospital in terms of the process and that one is on me,” said Mick Howe, the district’s attorney, who was responding to a question from the Gazette-Tribune about a state law that requires the termination would have to take place over two regular board meetings and not just one.
“I did not call the boards attention to that, I overlooked that technicality in the statute, so we are going to fix that problem with a new resolution which will have the effect of rescinding the prior motion, placing Mike on administrative leave. Then the motion for a new resolution (to terminate) will have to be introduced and passed in strict compliance with the statute,” said Howe by telephone Monday morning, August 1. “It was my mistake and I took full responsibility for the mistake in the technical process.”
Commissioner Adam Tibbs had made the announcement of Zwicker’s termination by resolution July 28, following a Special Executive Session held Tuesday, July 26.
Howe was present at the July 26 special meeting, but not at the July 28 regular meeting, where Board Chairman Helen Casey escorted Zwicker from the board room and out of the hospital immediately following Tibb’s announcement, asking everyone to remain in their seats.
Fellow board members, senior leaders, staff and visitors not only remained in their seats, they all remained silent for several minutes until Casey returned.
There were so many in attendance at the meeting that chairs had to be placed outside of the board room, with the doors left open for the extra people. Also at the board meeting was State Representative Joel Kretz of Wauconda, who said he was asked to be in attendance at the meeting by board members.
When Casey returned she had difficulty speaking but was able to carry on the meeting and hear commissioner reports.
At the end of the regular meeting the board of commissioners went into executive session for half an hour. When they returned they appointed Chief Financial Officer Helen Verhasselt as interim CEO.
When announcing the termination of Zwicker July 28, Tibbs quoted RCW 70.44.070 Superintendent-Appointment-Removal-Compensation as saying the superintendent could be removed at the will of the commission. However, the RCW states: “The public hospital district commission shall appoint a superintendent, who shall be appointed for an indefinite time and be removable at the will of the commission. Appointments and removals shall be by resolution, introduced at a regular meeting and adopted at a subsequent regular meeting by a majority vote.”
The NVH board did not introduce the removal of Zwicker at a regular board meeting and adopt the resolution at a subsequent regular meeting as called for in the RCW. When the Gazette-Tribune contacted Casey the following day to inquire about the legality of the termination, Casey said the RCW stated that a superintendent could be terminated at will, and only the hiring process needed to take place through two meetings.
When contacted by the Gazette-Tribune Monday, August 1, Zwicker said he had no comment on the situation.
Zwicker’s position began May 29, 2015, after the previous CEO, Linda Michels, was put on paid administrative leave from the end of February to the beginning of April of 2015, with Verhasselt standing in as interim CEO. Neither Casey nor Verhasselt had any comment as to why Michels was placed on paid administrative leave. Michels salary was $176,966 per year.
Retired CEO of Ferry County Hospital Ron O’Halloran stepped in as interim CEO April 1, 2015, on a month to month contract of $10,250 per month. A Long Range Focus Committee including Clarice Nelson, Teresa Hughes, Jan Gonzalez, Verhasselt, Terri Orford, Linda Holden and several community members was formed for the new superintendent search.
“With the naming of O’Halloran as our interim CEO, we will be able to take our time finding a versatile candidate that meets all the qualifications that the community, medical staff and board have established,” Casey said at the time.
“I will stay here as long as it takes, that way NVH can really take their time and find the right replacement—someone who is committed to staying in the area a long time,” said O’Halloran in March of 2015.
Zwicker was appointed new CEO at the May 14, 2015 regular board meeting, with the position beginning May 29 at a salary of $150,500 per year.
Casey said on July 29 that she had not yet been able to contact O’Halloran about the possibility of stepping in once again. Casey said a firm called Passage and Associates, who specialize in hospital CEOs, was hired to locate Michels in 2010.
“We have several different options,” said Casey, “sometimes people post on the Washington Hospital Association site that they are looking for work.”
Another NVH position seeing recent high turnover is the Director of Nursing Services (DNS). Tina Smith, DNS was suddenly terminated this past February and an interim DNS, Arnese Stern put in her place. Stern was then terminated July 12 by Zwicker, who had no comment on her dismissal. Stern alleged upon reporting for work July 12, she was met on the sidewalk by Human Resource Manager Jan Gonzales, who told her, ‘Mike (Zwicker) doesn’t want you back in the building and I need your badge.’ Stern further alleged her termination was “out of retaliation toward me.”
“Over the past six weeks, I had brought and attempted to bring unethical and unfair practices” to the attention of Zwicker,” wrote Stern in a Letter to the Editor published in the July 21 issue of the Gazette-Tribune.
Chosen as interim DNS until NVH recruits for the position is Informatics Nurse Lori Sawyer. Sawyer, who is in her 16th year of employment with NVH worked as OB Supervisor before turning to informatics, where she said she now deals with health data, and laws and regulations on compliance and quality. Asked if she would consider remaining as the DNS indefinitely, Sawyer said she was enrolled in a two-year program through Western Governor’s University to obtain her Bachelor’s degree in Informatics.
“I’m hoping to be done by next spring,” said Sawyer, adding that she was willing to keep her mind open about remaining in the DNS position.
During the July 28 regular meeting, Casey said the board of commissioners would be meeting with each of the hospital’s senior leaders in a special meeting held Monday, August. 1.
“It’s important to have the opportunity to be asked some questions,” said Casey, “but we want you to feel safe and secure and be open and honest.”
Casey said NVH District Secretary Brenda Turner and Community Outreach Liaison Mikaela Marion, both of whom reported to Zwicker, would be part of the interview process.
As the meeting was adjourning, Casey assured those attending, “We will find out where we’re going and get back on the right path. Now go out and do your job well.”
Speaking on Tuesday, Aug. 2, Casey said the meeting the previous evening gave the board the chance to speak with those on the senior leadership team one-on-one.
“They were free to visit regarding whatever they chose to talk about,” said Casey. “We will do that again, as they expressed appreciation for the freedom to discuss whatever was on their minds.”
Casey said each senior leader was given 15 minutes to speak, and they asked to be given more time at the next occassion.
“It was well worth the late night,” said Casey. “We have a great group of folks with great talent and commmitment to the hospital and community.”
In other hospital district news, the board approved a $15,303.65 equipment request for a Surgery GE Carescape Bedside Monitor made by Trevor Rise and a $37,227.96 equipment request for a Pentra 60 C+ Hematology Analyzer made by Noreen Olma.
The board approved bad debt in the amount of $19,800.14, $6,822.70 in NVH Charity Care, $479,047.52 in accounts payable vouchers, and a $1,095.10 payroll voucher. Accounts payable vouchers approved for Long Term Care totalled $93,526.14.
The next regular board meetings are scheduled for August 11 and August 25, beginning at 7 p.m.
Katie Teachout/staff photo