By Heidi Zemach for SCN
Seward City Council members voted at last night’s regular meeting to authorize the city manager to submit a new grant application for federal funding to establish a federally-qualified Community Health Center (FQHC) in Seward.
It wasn’t approved by the full council, however. Two of its members, Jean Bardarson and Marianna Keil, who are the city’s appointed representatives to the CHC board, had to sit out the vote and could not participate in the discussion on it because of a “Conflict of Interest” ruling by City Mayor David Seaward. Without them, that left only five remaining on the council dais to vote on whether to affirm or reject his ruling. Vanta Shafer, Christy Terry and Bob Valdatta voted against the ruling, but Ristine Casagranda and Mayor Seaward voted for it to be upheld.
The city has been an integral part of the process, and co-applicants in the CHC grant. CHC is a new nonprofit set up for that purpose, which hopes to successfully compete with other Alaska communities for these valued federal dollars.
In the former FQHC application cycle, Seward’s application scored high enough, just one point lower than needed to qualify. On Sept 15, 2011, Seward was one of two Alaska communities awarded an $80,000 planning grant under the Affordable Care Act, to help improve its position and strengthen its next grant application. The council also appropriated $65,000 in April 25, 2011 to fund startup costs of the new CHC.
Obtaining FQHC status would encourage and enable more uninsured or underinsured clients to receive primary care at the qualifying clinic or medical care facilities thus minimizing the cost of emergency room care, said Assistant Manager Ron Long. The federal reimbursement to the health care providers, including Providence, also would be at higher rates than currently provided.
The number of conflict of interest rulings has increased, and their definition broadened lately under Seaward’s mayorship. Late last November for instance, he ruled that Christy Terry, Seward port manager for the Alaska Railroad Corporation, had a conflict of interest, and therefore could not vote on a resolution appropriating $208,000 of Commercial Passenger Vessel Tax Funds to provide pavement repair and striping at the ARRC Cruise Ship terminal.
When making the ruling, Seaward called upon City Attorney Cheryl Brooking’s opinion about the matter. She said it was the council’s decision to make, but she also laid out two differing definitions of what might constitute a conflict of interest. The one most commonly used by Alaska municipalities like Seward would define a conflict of interest as any matter in which the lawmaker stands to gain financially, either directly or indirectly, she said. The other definition, considered under the Common Law, also includes vaguer secondary interests such as the “Duty of Loyalty, Obedience or Care,” the attorney said. Mayor Seaward picked the “Duty of Loyalty” (to the CHC board) as a reason for his conflict of interest ruling for Bardarson and Keil.
“I object. They were appointed to the board. They will not get any money,” Shafer said. “We’ve never used common law to judge conflict.” Most of the council members play multiple roles in the community, she later added. Shafer owns a bookstore and local newspaper, and is on the library board. Terry works for the railroad and participates in the Chamber of Commerce, others own or work at businesses, volunteer for churches, parent councils, and more. Think of all the conflicts that could be declared using that broad a criteria? She said.
“I’ve have always had a commitment to the community. It is not to one board, and when I make a decision, it’s in the best interest of the community,” Keil said during Council Comments. She added she didn’t think that conflict of interest rulings should be used “as a cudgel to punish” certain council members. “I was put on that board to represent the best interests of the community. If we’re not allowed to vote, then we’ll have to resign from board.” Because the City and the CHC are co-applicants, council representation was needed on the Community Health Center board, Keil said Tuesday.
“My decision to declare conflict of interest was based on researching past ordinances and resolutions passed on the matter of CHC and the council I received from questioning the city attorney during the council meeting,” Seaward explained in an email Tuesday. “They have every right to serve on the Board. The decision to declare conflict of interest was based on common law which was an option I was presented with at the time. The decision was made in best interest of the Seward community not anything else.”
(More on the meeting in an upcoming article…)