County Power Grab of SRHD
Boss French Flexes His Political Muscle Again
NOTE: I intend that my next post will be on Monday, November 29. Happy Thanksgiving week to one and all!
The current SRHD Board consists of twelve members: three councilpersons from City of Spokane; two Councilpersons from the City of Spokane Valley; Mayor Kevin Freeman of Millwood (representing the smaller communities in the county), and each of the three Spokane County Commissioners, each of whom appoints a “citizen” representative. The County Commissioners plus their three appointed “citizen” representatives together thus make up half of the voting members of the twelve member board.
On Monday, November 15, in an example of partisan power politics, Commissioners Al French, Mary Kuney, and Josh Kerns began their restructuring of the SRHD Board by removing all representatives of the City of Spokane and City of Spokane Valley from the Board, all five of them, while retaining Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman as the sole elected official on the board to represent the county’s cities and towns. (Mayor Freeman received this news not from the Commissioners, but from the Spokesman reporter who called him for comment.) In addition there will be four unelected representatives on the SRHD Board as mandated by a new state law:
The commissioners will pick three of the four unelected representatives, and there are rules outlining who they can pick. Anyone interested in applying for these positions is asked to reach out to the county commissioners.
This new SRHD Board will consist of eight, not twelve, members, six of whom are the Commissioners or people they appoint, giving the County a supermajority voting block. The only two board members not tied to the County will be Mayor Freeman and “a tribal representative selected by the American Indian health commission” (per RCW 70.05.030, see below).
Like much of what goes on in the current three person Spokane County Commission, the reorganization was voted on and final before anyone knew it was even a topic of discussion. Those on the County email list received notification in an email on November 11 of a “Special Meeting” to be held on Monday, November 15. The notice offered a link to a two page document “Notice of Special Meeting” in which the reorganization was buried among eight items—listed only as “(7) Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) Composition (RCW 70.05.030)”. It is impossible to believe that there was no discussion and no plan in the works—but if there was it was either not public or it was buried. As I write today, four days after the vote, I am still unable to find any written detail of the Commissioners’ decision on the Spokane County website.
Restructuring of Washington State county-based boards of health was mandated by state law passed by the Washington State legislature this last session, RCW 70.05.030 (scroll down to see the part “Effective July 1, 2022”). The law is plainly meant to increase the voice of citizens and health professionals on the boards of health, balancing the influence of elected officials, almost none of whom have experience or expertise in public health. RCW 70.05.030 was not intended to offer an opening for a Spokane County Commissioners to strip urban elected officials from their current representation on the SRHD Board, but, seeing a window of opportunity in the law as written, French, Kuney, and Kerns jumped right on it.
The reorganization comes at a time of flux in Spokane County politics. Next fall (2022) five commissioners will be elected, one each from five newly drawn county districts. These five positions will replace the current three countywide-elected commissioner positions. The current three commissioners will all have to stand for election if they want to keep their lucrative jobs ($110,000 annually in 2017). (Note that is more than twice the salary of city council members—even while the current commissioners operate much less transparently.)
Current Commissioner Josh Kerns, when contacted by Colin Tiernan of the Spokane for Tiernan’s article on the reorganization, offered these lame explanations of the Commissioners’ action:
Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said the county chose to have a smaller board for two main reasons: First, the county alone funds the Spokane Regional Health District, Kerns said. And second, the commissioners represent all county residents.
“We are everybody’s voice on the board,” he said.
Kerns also emphasized that the commissioners followed the letter of the law. He said if Riccelli [WA State Representative to Olympia from LD3, City of Spokane] wanted more public health professionals and more elected city officials on the board, he should have written that into the bill.
“It’s his law,” Kerns said. “I would say Rep. Riccelli’s rhetoric doesn’t match the bills that he drafts.”
Kerns’ last comment rings like the schoolyard taunt, “Nah, Nah, Ni, Nah, Nah! Gotcha!” The current three Commissioners are all allied Republicans elected on county-wide ballots. Two of them (French and Kuney) are closely tied to the building industry. The overall county typically votes around 45% Democratic. For Kerns to claim that “We are everybody’s voice on the board” and that they “represent all county residents” is a vacuous assertion.
Although Kerns is the only Commissioner quoted in the Spokesman article, one must sense manipulations by Commissioner Al French, arguably the most powerful elected official in Spokane County. Mr. French tends to avoid the limelight, moving behind the scenes as he did the night the SRHD Board fired the health director, Dr. Bob Lutz, in the middle of the Covid pandemic. Moments later Mr. French reappeared in the Zoom meeting to offer up his choice for Lutz’ temporary replacement, Dr. Velazquez. (Dr. Velazquez, has, predictably, since been made the permanent health officer of SHRD.)
Mr. French, like Kerns, has verbally chaffed over the voting presence on the SHRD Board of city government representatives, when, after all, it is the commissioner’s, i.e. “the county’s” money that funds the SHRD. It is curious how possessive both Kerns and French sound of “the county’s” money. “Spokane County receives the majority of their tax revenues from three sources, property tax, real estate excise tax, and sales tax.” The vast majority of those taxes are paid by residents of the City of Spokane and the City of Spokane Valley, who, together, make up 61% of the population of the entire county.
That French, Kuney, and Kerns have just voted to toss out the city council representatives from the SHRD Board is pure power politics. They saw an opportunity to consolidate a supermajority on the Board and they took it. Remember their bogus justification when you cast your ballot for new commissioners next fall.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. Here’s a chance for civic-minded people to serve their community. Check out the specifics in RCW 70.05.030 (scroll down to see the section that opens with “Effective July 1, 2022”) and put your name in the ring for the commissioners to consider. Offer them choices other than the ideologues that might otherwise be the only ones to apply. (Recall that Commissioner Josh Kerns’ defense for appointing an anti-mask, anti-vaccination, anti-science naturopath to the board was, “He was the only one who applied.”)