Hospital CEO dismissal

Bernier seeks to block release of personnel records

By Les Bowen for Lake Chelan Mirror   |   Oct. 14, 2009   |   Original source behind paywall

Former Lake Chelan Community Hospital CEO filed court papers last week seeking to prevent the hospital from releasing portions of his personnel record. Hospital district commissioners fired Bernier on Sept. 17, after more than two months of investigation, during which Bernier was on administrative leave.

As part of the action terminating Bernier’s employment, the board stated that the hospital would send the former CEO a written letter detailing the reasons for termination. In a separate action, the board also voted to place a disciplinary letter in Bernier’s personnel file related to a sexual harassment complaint.

Under the state’s Public Records Act, all government records are subject to disclosure unless they are protected by a specific exemption.

The Lake Chelan Mirror made a request that the documents be disclosed, citing state law. Similar requests have also been filed by and the Wenatchee World. Bernier’s attorneys filed papers in Chelan County Superior Court seeking to prevent disclosure. Judge T.W. Small granted a temporary restraining order and set a court date for this Friday, Oct. 16, to determine whether Bernier’s personnel records are subject to public disclosure.

The Lake Chelan Mirror has joined with and the Wenatchee World to fight against Bernier’s filing.

Attorneys for Hospital District 2 said the hospital will not seek to sway the court in either direction, but “will adhere to any decision made by the court.”

The former CEO’s attorneys, argued in their filing that the records would not be subject to public disclosure, claiming “… that examination of those records would not be in the public’s interest and would substantially and irreparably damage Bernier.” As an alternative, they offered an alternative allowing release of the records redacting portions deemed protected under state law.

Bernier’s attorneys cited several instances of case law in their brief to support their position:

  • Brown v. Seattle Public Schools, which found that performance evaluations that do not discuss specific instances of misconduct are exempt from disclosure.

  • Tiberino v. Spokane County, which found that personal information that is unrelated to government operations is exempt.

  • Spokane Research & Defense Fund v. City of Spokane, which found that most employees have an expectation that evaluations will not be disclosed and release of those records would violate employees’ privacy. However, the court found that the Spokane city manager and other chief executive officers are exempt from this protection. “The performance of the City Manager’s job is a legitimate subject of public interest and public debate,” the court wrote. “A person in the position of Spokane City Manager cannot reasonably expect that evaluations of the performance of his or her public duties will not be subject to disclosure.”