Clark, Lutz, and SRHD BOH
The ongoing saga of administrative bungling
On Tuesday this week (June 1) the members of the Washington State Board of Health (WSBOH) met to consider the preliminary investigation and possible action in the case of Amelia Clark. Amelia Clark is the Spokane Regional Health District’s (SRHD’s) Administrator. Seven months ago at the height of the Covid 19 pandemic Ms. Clark made a lot of news. She was the public face of the District and the SRHD Board of Health in the days-long ouster of SHRD’s health officer, Dr. Bob Lutz.
“At a chaotic news conference, Clark refused to say whether Lutz was fired or he resigned.” according the the Spokesman. In retrospect, Clark’s refusal to clarify suggests that she at least had an inkling of the thin legal ice on which she stood.
By Washington State Law (RCW 70.05.050)
…the local health officer shall not be removed until after notice is given, and an opportunity for a hearing before the board or official responsible for his or her appointment under this section as to the reason for his or her removal.
Ms. Clark might have imagined (or had been told by someone of presumed authority?) that a perfunctory meeting in executive session, i.e. in a privileged behind-closed-doors meeting, would satisfy the state statute. She may have thought (or been told) that Lutz’s dismissal would blow over in a few days and all would be well. Instead, the outrage was loud, swift and specific. In an effort that looked like an attempt at damage control to retroactively satisfy the letter of the law, the Board met the next week in public. After a presentation of a litany of disjointed complaints by Ms. Clark, a rebuttal by Dr. Lutz and his attorney, and another private executive session, a majority of the Board voted to rubber stamp Ms. Clark’s dismissal of Dr. Lutz as a fait accompli.
It might have ended there were it not for sustained community outrage, the involvement of community leaders, and an understanding of the law. Ben Stuckart, former City Council President and others filed a complaint with the Washington State Board of Health, the body empowered by law (RCW 70.05.120) to review and take action against a local health administrator. In response the State Board of Health may hold a hearing “if a preliminary investigation so warrants.” After that hearing it is within the Board’s power to remove the administrator from office.
The preliminary investigation is complete. You can read it as a document here. The work was done by Karen M. Sutherland of the Seattle law firm Ogden, Murphy, and Wallace. The document is extensive and thorough, providing evidence that Ms. Clark did violate the provisions of RCW 70.05.050 in her dismissal of Dr. Lutz.
I watched the Tuesday meeting of the WA State Board of Health online. Karen Sutherland carefully and clearly presented her preliminary investigation. This meeting was not typical material for the members of the board. They are mostly health professionals with expertise in epidemiology, not legal determinations. After some questions and deliberation they unanimously approved a motion to do the next thing the statues require: hold a formal hearing to which they may subpoena witnesses and take testimony under oath. They decided to hire the services of an administrative law judge to run the proceedings.
Researching this process through to this point is an education in the way government is supposed to work if citizens are paying attention. It is also a cautionary tale warning us that without citizen involvement government and government agencies can go off the rails.
The Lutz dismissal saga last fall reeked of behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Administrator Clark’s and Board Chairman Ben Wick’s announcement of Dr. Lutz’ dismissal was poorly prepared, confusing and contradictory. Mayor Woodward praised the action in a letter composed and sent before the announcement, suggesting prior knowledge. After public outcry that clearly caught Ms. Clark off guard, a proper Board meeting with a hearing and a confirmatory vote was hurriedly scheduled the next week. This put the Board members in the position of either backing up Ms. Clark’s action or admitting she had misstepped. At that emergency Board meeting Al French darted on and off the Zoom screen, contributing little in public and an unknown amount in executive session. Minutes after the vote that rubber stamped Ms. Clark’s action (and before anyone on the Board had caught their breath), County Commissioner French offered up Dr. Velasquez as Dr. Lutz’ interim replacement. The public will never know exactly how the drama unfolded, but it makes no difference to the issue at hand: a competent administrator should understand the law. The law is available with a few keystrokes on the internet. A competent administrator would have pushed back at whomever was urging her toward the summary dismissal of Dr. Lutz. Ms. Clark either understood the thin ice she was on and gambled that she could get away with her action or she did not do the homework required of a competent administrator. Either way, all the evidence I have read suggests that Ms. Clark broke the law.
Points to contemplate:
1) These days the rules by which we are governed are easily accessible (even if they require some diligent reading).
2) Mechanisms exist in the law for common citizens to expose and compel the system to examine alleged faulty behavior. It is incumbent on the citizens to understand and use the tools available.
3) Washington State requires that governmental meetings be conducted in public, but that is useful only if citizens like us pay enough attention to notice when things aren’t right.
The Washington State Board of Health is in the process of scheduling the required hearing. The proceedings should be very interesting.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. Shawn Vestal offers great commentary on the Amelia Clark case in his Spokesman article of May 23: State probe of Lutz firing puts the lie to the attempt to rewrite history.