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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Deaconess, Valley hospitals abandon ethics investigation request

Deaconess and Valley hospital officials are abandoning their request for an ethics investigation of three Spokane City Council members who used city letterhead to express concerns about medical staffing levels during an ongoing labor dispute.

The hospitals now say the request for an “advisory ethics opinion” on whether Council President Ben Stuckart and council members Jon Snyder and Amber Waldref violated city ethics was made by hospital lobbyist Tom Parker without authorization.

The three council members wrote Deaconess interim CEO Rod Schumacher and Valley CEO Tim Moran in late November as a labor dispute at the hospitals intensified. The council members called on the executives to avert a strike and “begin working immediately to settle a fair agreement that addresses staffing and patient care at Deaconess and Valley.” Staffing was among the key points raised by union workers.

Deaconess and Valley are for-profit hospitals, owned by Tennessee-based Community Health Systems Inc. and part of the Rockwood Health System.

Early this month, Parker, a lobbyist contracted to represent the hospitals, emailed a request to City Attorney Nancy Isserlis for the advisory ethics opinion about the letter sent by the council members. He stressed that the request was on behalf of the CEOs of the two hospitals.

“The leadership of Rockwood Health Systems is concerned the letter appears to represent an official position of the council and/or the city regarding on-going negotiations at Rockwood,” wrote Parker.

Isserlis forwarded the request to the Spokane Ethics Committee, which likely will consider the topic at a meeting later this month.

Sasha Weiler, Rockwood spokeswoman, said hospital executives did not intend to make any requests for ethics investigations. She said they believed the matter was settled after they mailed the council members a response letter on Dec. 16.

“That was not a request that was authorized to be submitted,” Weiler said.

Parker said Thursday that he and Rockwood officials had a conversation about the letter and whether it constituted an official position for the city.

“I just misunderstood what their direction was. It’s not something that happens very often to me, but we’re all humans,” Parker said. “I think they were just having a discussion about it. It was just a mistake on my part.”

The three council members who signed the letter have been active in supporting Service Employees International Union 1199NW in its labor dispute with Community Health Systems. Stuckart met with picketing workers outside one of the hospitals.

“After hearing from health care workers who are on the front line every day, we are concerned about staffing levels at Deaconess and Valley and the impact on the quality of care provided at both hospitals,” their letter to the hospital CEOs said.

The union, which represents nurses at Valley Hospital and technical and other staff members at both hospitals, conducted a one-day strike on Dec. 4. Members of the union have been working under an expired contract. Weiler said Wednesday that there have been no bargaining sessions between the union and hospitals since the strike.

The union has asked the hospitals to bolster staffing, saying cutbacks have put patient care and comfort in jeopardy. Community Health Systems officials say staffing is appropriate and claim the labor action is related to a push for higher wages, including a demand for 5 percent annual pay raises for three years.

Before hospital officials backed off the ethics request, Stuckart called the ethics inquiry “outrageous” and said hospital executives were trying to intimidate him and other officials from speaking out about low staffing levels.

Stuckart on Thursday said he has requested a face-to-face meeting with hospital executives.

“If this wouldn’t have hit the press, would they be backing down like this?” he asked. “Face-to-face dialogue is better than filing inquiries.”

City Councilman Mike Allen said he doubts the letter constitutes an ethics violation, but he understands the hospitals’ concern.

“I don’t know that using the City Council platform is the most appropriate way to do that. It should pertain directly to the City Council business in my opinion,” Allen said.

Snyder said the success of Deaconess is important city business because it treats and employs many of his constituents.

“I want it to remain a strong institution. I have concerns about decision-making that has occurred since it’s become a for-profit institution,” Snyder said. “I don’t know how you could stretch the definition of city business to not include things like that.”

In the last two years council members have vigorously debated what issues constitute city business. The topic came to the forefront in 2011 when the council declined to support gay marriage after a majority of council members argued that it wasn’t a city issue. But council members who hoped the council would back gay marriage questioned why the majority thought it was acceptable to take a formal stance against the Spokane Tribe of Indians’ proposed casino west of Airway Heights.

Waldref said she, Snyder and Stuckart were writing as elected leaders, not as the City Council as a whole. She said council members shouldn’t have to ask the council to vote on an issue every time a council member uses letterhead unless they want a majority of members to sign it.

“I use city letterhead for any correspondence I have on any city concern,” Waldref said.

Service Employees International Union 1199NW has contributed in recent Spokane City Council races. Last year, it gave $1,800 to Snyder’s re-election campaign and $900 to Waldref’s. It also gave $2,500 to Citizens for Honest Government, a political action committee formed to back Snyder and Candace Mumm, who won her race and joined the council at the start of the year.

In 2011, Stuckart received $400 from the union. Another SEIU union that represents home health care workers has contributed similar amounts.

Snyder said contributions didn’t affect his decision to sign the letter.

The contributions are “an indication that our values align on numerous issues,” he said.

After the council members sent the letter, they received a response from the hospital CEOs and four other officials from the two hospitals on Dec. 16 that thanked them for “taking the time to share your interest and learn more about our hospitals.” The letter did not indicate that they believed the council members may have violated ethics rules.