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PeaceHealth rockets to top of public-concerns list

Sorting through ballots, yours and ours

Voters submit their primary election ballots at 7:59 p.m. Tuesday
Voters submit their primary election ballots at 7:59 p.m. Tuesday
By Ron Judd Executive Editor

Sit down for this: Our Fair City’s homeless situation still weighs heavily on residents’ minds. 

As does water quality, specifically drinking water from Lake Whatcom. 

It’s no surprise to see both issues top our Citizens Agenda list of questions chosen by readers to pass along to candidates for local office in the Nov. 7 general election. 

Somewhat more eyebrow-raising was the rapid elevation, in the past year, of a long-simmering subject of public concern: PeaceHealth. Not health care writ large, but its local delivery, writ small. 

Widespread anger about the Vancouver, Clark County-based “not for profit” Catholic organization nearly took over the Citizens Agenda voter board this year. Two of the top-ranked questions were confrontational queries about this single organization dominating health care in our region.

For a polling mechanism that tends to trade in broad subjects, these voter concerns are unusually specific. They’re focused on the recent axing of services, including palliative care and an allergy clinic, by an organization that has both engaged in community fundraising for services and simultaneously enjoys tax benefits via its religious affiliation. 

Beyond that, local residents are riled up about the structure of the organization itself, with budget-cutting decisions made at a “corporate level” at PeaceHealth headquarters. Readers called PeaceHealth’s domination of local health services “near monopolistic power.” 

That’s serious. 

Is the concern really as widespread as it appeared in our decidedly non-scientific reader poll? Without true polling data, it’s a tough thing to prove empirically. But I would argue yes.

Concern runs deep

If public feedback to CDN is an indicator, few single issues have tweaked local sensibilities as much as PeaceHealth’s recent decisions. In the wake of them, many people expect local leaders to not only empathize, but act. 

Can they? Yes, in some ways. It’s been on our civic table before, and never really left. All of this should make for a lively conversation in the coming two-month general election campaign season. 

My take: While it’s surely uncomfortable for some, this is a  long-overdue community conversation. Health care is a human right, and PeaceHealth’s status as a near-exclusive provider comes with both advantages and awesome responsibility. We’ll pass readers’ questions about it directly to candidates.

Having said all that: Are those the only concerns CDN considers worthy of discussion in coming stories — and, later, editorial endorsements — about local candidates? Not even close. 

We treat our Citizens Agenda questions as an expression of public priorities, which we push across the table as a surrogate pot-stirrer. But the soup in that pot has a much broader base. 

We are keenly aware, based on the wealth of questions we received, of dozens of other pressing matters that didn’t make our top-five list of questions about local government and top-three questions related to crime and justice, and separately about education. 

Other issues won’t be forgotten

Please know that all of these are on our radar screen as we move past the primary election to focus on individual candidates and ballot measures. Some additional subjects from that big list that didn’t make the “top” list, but still matter, include: 

Reproductive rights. Management style, in an age of partisan intransigence. Transportation, specifically cars versus bikes/pedestrians and associated civic infrastructure. Development pressures and impact fees. Heavy industry and jobs versus environmental caution. Climate change, and mitigating its now-clear, unfolding impacts. 

Trees. Salmon. Trails. Renewable energy. Rents and housing costs. Child care. Water rights and adjudication. Public transportation. The power and constitution of public health boards. Taxes, taxes, taxes. 

Whatcom County’s jail, and possible scale, funding and location of a new one. Gun violence and common-sense restrictions on weapons. Training and vetting of police. Crime, large and small. Ideological incursions on local public school curriculum, hiring and policies. Bullying (and hazing) of children. 

It’s a process of focus

These are all floating in the mix of ideas and questions for reporters charged with cutting through the smoke and mirrors of campaign talking points to get to the true values and guiding principles of candidates for public office. 

At its core, that really is the sole intent of our Citizens Agenda, a model we have adopted after successful use in many other places in North America over the past decade. 

It’s a somewhat crude instrument, but our experience last year — and already through the first half of the current election season — suggest the program serves as a useful tool in not only crystallizing public opinion, but expanding knowledge of issues critical to some of us, but largely unknown to others.

CDN is grateful for the public participation. We look to November with the promise that election coverage in our minds is a dynamic process. Consider the window open for other ideas you’d like to see passed to candidates. As a locally owned, independent news source, that two-way conversation is central to our mission. 

Ron Judd’s column appears on Fridays;; @roncjudd.

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