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Competitive election at pivotal time for Petaluma Health Care District

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The Petaluma Health Care District’s first board election in a decade comes at a pivotal time for the public agency that owns Petaluma Valley Hospital and has been muddling through contract negotiations for a new hospital operator for the past two years.

The last time the district staged an election, in 2008, six people ran for three open seats. Since then, a lack of community interest in the little known agency has forced the board to appoint members to fill open seats.

This year, however, incumbent board member Jo Thornton is retiring and three candidates are seeking to fill two available seats. Incumbent board member Joe Stern, a financial planner, faces challengers Gabriella Ambrosi, an elder care provider, and Crista Barnett Chelemedos, a nonprofit executive director.

The district has been mired in complicated, on-again-off-again negotiations with St. Joseph Health to operate Petaluma Valley Hospital, the city’s only acute care facility. The incumbent operator, St. Joseph originally held talks with the district to continue operating the hospital ahead of its contract expiring in 2017.

But those negotiations broke down over financial terms and an unwillingness by the Catholic provider to continue offering some female reproductive health services at the hospital. The district launched a new search, settling on Southern California hospital company Paladin Healthcare.

The district never reached an agreement with Paladin due to the company’s lack of a required electronic medical records system, and the district relaunched talks with St. Joseph, which is in the process of combining Northern California operations with Adventist Health.

Stern, a principal at Enso Wealth Management who was appointed to the heath care district in 2015, said he wants to see the contract negotiations through to the end. He said the district is close to reaching a deal and blamed the complexity of the process for the delay.

“I would like to finish the job we started,” he said. “The main priority is to reach a definitive agreement with St. Joseph to operate Petaluma Valley Hospital longterm.”

Stern, 48, said his experience in finance makes up for his lack of healthcare background. He serves on the finance committee of the Association of California Health Care Districts. He became interested in healthcare while helping retirees manage their assets.

“I realized that health is a key component of wealth,” he said.

The two challengers in the race both have a background in senior health care. Ambrosi owns Sequoia Senior Solutions, an in-home care provider, and Barnett Chelemedos directs Senior Advocacy Services, which helps seniors navigate the Medicare system.

Ambrosi, 62, moved to Petaluma from Italy in 1994 after she got married. A former nurse, she and her husband started Sequoia Senior Solutions 15 years ago, and now have 200 employees.

“I’ve been passionate about healthcare all my life,” she said.

Besides wanting to make sure the hospital remains viable, Ambrosi said she wants to bring more healthcare services to Petaluma.

“I know that the board feels strongly they can continue with St. Joseph,” she said. “I would love to see that happen. The service they provide is great. I’m in favor of maintaining a thriving hospital.”

Barnett Chelemedos, 55, has been executive director of Senior Advocacy Services for six years, and has an extensive background in nonprofits. She said she also wants to see the hospital thrive and said she wants to convene more community partnerships, like Sober Circle, a collaboration of stakeholders to help people out of chronic homelessness.

“I want to help us move closer to our needs and requirements of being a healthy community,” she said. “We need to move the district toward more community relationships.”

Though the district is one of a few that does not tax residents, the board could decide in the future whether to seek a tax. Instead, the district remains solvent through the hospital lease and from other land holdings.

The district owns the vacant parcel across McDowell Boulevard from the hospital and once tried to develop a Walgreens drug store, but the project was held up when the city rejected plans for a drive through pharmacy.

(Contact Matt Brown at matt.brown@arguscourier.com.)