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Anti-annexation forces cheer PDC findings

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The fallout over last year's abysmal attempt by a Renton hospital to expand its district boundaries nearly to Enumclaw continued recently, when a state agency revealed the district may have misused public money on a political campaign.

A report by the Washington Public Disclosure Commission noted Valley Medical Center officials incorrectly spent more than $230,000 in public funds while gearing up for an election that failed miserably last spring. The report showed that the public hospital used taxpayer funds to send campaign mailings, hire campaign consultants and conduct phone and mail surveys in violation of the law.

It's important to note the report does not constitute the final determination by the PDC. The matter will go before the full commission in September. The findings from the initial report could be upheld, rejected or amended at that time.

Hospital officials contend the spending was legal, merely for public information purposes.

The PDC report came about a year after a complaint was filed by Maple Valley Mayor Laure Iddings. She was among the leaders - along with Enumclaw businessman Alan Gamblin and state Sen. Pam Roach - in the anti-annexation movement.

In short, the hospital district had looked to significantly stretch its boundaries, aiming to take in south King County turf that included all of Black Diamond and property within a very short drive of Enumclaw and its regional hospital. Valley Medical Center officials said they were only trying to collect tax dollars from those who would use their services. Opposition forces contended the Renton hospital was simply trying to extend its tax base and looking to collect money from folks who would never make the trip to Valley Medical's facilities.

The opposition apparently made its case very clear, as the hospital's request was met with 94 percent opposition at the polls. That's believed to be the most significant defeat of a ballot measure in Washington state history.

“The taxpayers were outraged by the actions of Valley Medical Center last year and it is gratifying to see that the Public Disclosure Commission staff report agrees that this was a terrible misuse of public funds,” Iddings said.

The PDC report shows that Valley Medical Center hired a California consulting company with public funds, conducted surveys and sent mailings, all with the intent of running a political campaign to increase the size of the district. The consultants were paid $15,000 per month, while polling firms were paid tens of thousands for campaign surveys.

In addition, the PDC report confirms Iddings' complaint that some statements in the Valley Medical Center's illegal, taxpayer-funded mailings were false.

“When you collect taxes, you assume a public trust to not use the money incorrectly. This was the most flagrant violation,” Iddings said. “Voters realized this, knew it was wrong and rejected the measure.”

The report noted that the hospital attorney David Smith derogatorily referred to Iddings as a mayor with “a bee in her bonnet,” for protesting the use of taxpayer funds in the campaign.

“I do have a bee in my bonnet about illegally using tax funds for political campaigns,” Iddings said. “Now I hope that the hospital finds out that this bee has a sting.”

She was referring to possible sanctions that can be imposed by the PDC. The commission is able to levy fines for violation of the law or refer the case to the state attorney general for further prosecution.

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