Unlike most years, residents in the Petaluma Health Care District actually have a choice for board member this November. And it couldn’t come at a more important time.

The district, which owns Petaluma Valley Hospital, has been working through what is now a three-year process on a contract for a longterm operator of the city’s only acute care facility. Stewardship of the hospital is arguably the most important role of the district. A viable local hospital is the cornerstone of healthcare in Petaluma.

In most election years, a lack of community interest has required the district to appoint board members to fill vacancies. This year, with longtime board member Jo Thornton retiring, one incumbent and two challengers are in the race for two open seats.

To ensure the future of Petaluma Valley Hospital remains solid, and to expand on healthcare programs in the city, voters should select incumbent Joe Stern and challenger Crista Barnett Chelemedos for the Petaluma Health Care District board.

Stern, 48, has served nearly a full term on the board, having been appointed in 2015. A wealth management advisor, what he lacks in healthcare knowledge, he makes up for in financial acumen.

Stern’s knowledge of fiscal policy is invaluable as the district works through talks with hospital operator St. Joseph health on a new longterm contract. Since the district is one of the few that does not tax residents, it is property holdings like the hospital that allow the agency to thrive independent of a public revenue stream.

While negotiations with St. Joseph have dragged well past the expiration of the current hospital contract, and Stern was on the board during a misguided attempt to pursue a different operator, the delay was not entirely the district’s fault. Many unforeseen complications are responsible for the delay, including the Catholic operator’s refusal to continue providing female reproductive health services, a complex electronic medical records system, and recently St. Joseph’s combination with Adventist Health.

Barnett Chelemedos, 55, has leadership and healthcare experience as the executive director of Senior Advocacy Services, which helps seniors navigate the Medicare system. Besides working towards ensuring a thriving hospital, her community connections will be key in the district’s other main role as healthcare convener.

The district facilitates programs like Sober Circle, a collaboration of stakeholders to help people out of chronic homelessness, which improve health outcomes in the community. Barnett Chelemedos wants to expand on these programs, as well as make district meetings and decisions more transparent.

Gabriella Ambrosi, 62, the other challenger in the race, is clearly passionate about healthcare. A former nurse, she and her husband established Sequoia Senior Solutions 15 years ago and now have 200 employees. In a race without two other exemplary candidates, she would make a fine board member.

The little known district plays a large role in healthcare in the city. From decisions about land use to taxation to the future of Petaluma Valley Hospital, the board has an outsize role for a body with such a low profile. But voters should pay attention and elect board members who will best serve the healthcare needs of the community.

The Argus-Courier recommends Joe Stern and Crista Barnett Chelemedos for Petaluma Health Care District board.