SRHD BOH Meeting
What follows below is a lengthy commentary addressing what I saw on display at the meeting last Thursday when the Board of Health voted to fire Dr. Lutz, the Health Office, in the midst of a pandemic. The story is not quite over. Today, Monday, November 9, at roughly 2:45PM, the Washington State Board of Health will address complaints lodged with the State Board over this firing. Here is the link to that meeting's agenda containing a link to that online meeting. Arielle Dreyer of the Spokesman continued her excellent series of articles on this controversy with this article in Sunday's paper: Moving forward: Spokane County health board acknowledges work ahead of them after dismissing health officer.
One more note: I currently plan to take the day off on Wednesday this week.
A Lesson and Window on Civics and Politics
Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health Meeting, Thursday, November 5, 2020, 3-7:20PM
Last Thursday an average audience of about 2000 watched the Board of Health (BOH) meeting at which the members of the Board voted to terminate the employment of Dr. Bob Lutz, the District Health Officer. Dr. Lutz has been the face of pandemic management in Eastern Washington. The meeting and the vote offered glimpses into a corner of local government where few citizens ever look and even fewer understand.
We elect officials to city and county governments mostly based on campaign rhetoric. Then, in most cases, unless an official is caught doing something that grabs human attention, like sex or money, we mostly ignore them for the next four years.
The Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) employs around 300 people. SRHD's physical offices are in the large, cream-colored building with a cylindrical corners with domed tops just north of Kendall Yards near the Spokane County Courts. In non-Covid times SRHD employees are run programs most of us hardly notice (until something goes wrong), like tuberculosis surveillance and treatment, drinking water and food safety monitoring, infectious disease monitoring and control, and the general promotion of public health. The people who work at SRHD toil in relative obscurity to keep the citizens of Spokane County healthy and safe.
The day to day workings of SRHD are overseen by Amelia Clark, the District's Health Administrator. Ms. Clark was hired by the SRHD Board after a lengthy search just over a year ago in September, 2019.
The Board of Health meets for a few hours once a month, ten months out of the year. Much of the information The Board of Health members receive about the day-to-day function of SRHD comes to them through Ms. Clark. Nine of the members of the Board of Health are officials elected to positions in city or county government and represent those governments as members of the board. This service is only one of multitude of duties. The other three members of the Board, the members-at-large, are volunteers nominated to the Board by the County Commissioners.
Recently, Dr. Bob Lutz has reported to Board of Health meetings for only ten or fifteen minutes, primarily to offer a report on the current state of the pandemic in Eastern Washington. Dr. Lutz was appointed by the BOH to the position of District Health Officer in June of 2017. (Click here to read his compelling bio presented in the Spokesman at the time of his appointment.) Four candidates were interviewed for the position. The selection, according to the minutes, was made by Torney Smith (the Administrator at the time) "after input from the hiring committee."
Dr. Lutz was well known to the members of the Board at the time of his hiring in 2017. For eight years before his appointment Dr. Lutz served on the Board of Health as a member-at-large, an unpaid position. He sat shoulder-to-shoulder at meetings with six Board members who still sit on the twelve member Board: City of Spokane City Council Members Karen Stratton and Breean Beggs, Mayor Kevin Freeman of Millwood, Member-at-large Chuck Hafner, and Spokane County Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French. The latter four contributed four of the eight votes cast to fire Dr. Lutz last Thursday.
At the Board of Health Meeting last Thursday, November 5, Administrator Clark presented a flood of grievances against Dr. Lutz which she had accumulated over the last year, plus a few stragglers she had dredged from the files. It was a firehose of complaint mostly documenting that she and Dr. Lutz neither like nor respect each other. The Board was going to have to chose either the administrator whom the Board had hired a year ago or the highly skilled and credentialed, sometimes abrasive and dismissive doctor and epidemiologist who six of the twelve Board members had known for years. Nothing in Ms. Clark's litany of complaints against Dr. Lutz explains the timing she chose to launch her first (ultimately abortive) attempt to fire him without a public vote of the Board. There was no pressing issue demanding that the District Health Officer be fired in the face of rising pandemic numbers five days before a media-dominating national election. Nor was there an explanation how she, as an administrator who should have read and understood the Bylaws, thought she could fire Dr. Lutz without a public vote of the Board.
If one focuses solely on the issue of chain of command and ignores all else, a Board member forced to chose between these two might give the edge to Ms Clark, since the Bylaws have Dr. Lutz reporting to her as his superior. That fealty to organizational structure may explain some of the votes for dismissal. That structure is faulty without further guidance and guardrails. Dr. Lutz, as an M.D., answers not just to the SRHD structure but also to the oath he took as a physician and the terms of his professional licensure.
There are several things about the Thursday meeting and its aftermath that smell of a political hatchet job. Commissioner Al French, nominally a member of the Board, has missed 22 BOH meetings in a row. At last Thursday's meeting, Commissioner French's face was seen on screen only intermittently, a lurking presence. Nonetheless, he attended the one hour and twenty minute long Executive Session away from the public eye that occurred during the meeting. Mr. French re-appeared from the Executive Session and almost immediately offered a motion to fire Dr. Lutz (at 3:20:15 in the video). There was a lengthy pause after Chairman Wick asked if there were a second to the motion. Finally, Commissioner Kerns seconded, ending the silence. In presenting his motion, Mr. French took the time to read out loud a letter from Sheriff Knezovich critical of Dr. Lutz' performance. The lack of relevance felt jarring. Why elevate the Sheriff's opinion, especially after numerous organizations and more than a thousand community members had lodged comments with the Board, comments overwhelmingly in favor of retaining Dr. Lutz? The reading reeked of local Republican power politics. Then, after the vote, Mr. French was ready with a surprise motion to appoint Dr. Francisco Velazquez as interim Health Officer. French's whole performance was one of raw political power.
After hearing from French (and from Ozzie Knezovich through French) there was one more voice that appeared the next morning in the Spokesman article about the meeting:
Though the City of Spokane’s representatives [Beggs, Wilkerson, and Stratton] on the health board voted to retain Lutz, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward supported the firing, calling it [the original announcement that Clark had fired Dr. Lutz, before it was clear the Bylaws required a public meeting and vote of the Board] the “best news I’ve heard in a long time,” in a letter she submitted to board members as part of public comment ahead of today’s [last Thursday's] vote.
She described herself as “frustrated” as Spokane County has been stuck in Phase 2 of the economic reopening plan to the detriment of people and businesses.
“Important community decisions are being made by a single entity,” she said of Lutz. “Information sharing with partners has slowed to a trickle. Public communication has come from one source.
“That, as the data has been telling us for months now, does not work.”
Health board members said during the meeting that economic considerations were not part of their decision to fire Lutz. Instead, they turned to the allegations leveled by Clark.
Commissioner French, Sheriff Knezovich, and Nadine Woodward knew what they wanted: a compliant, business-minded Health Officer. They got one step closer by harnessing the tension between Clark and Lutz and using it to sway the Board of Health vote.
Government is complex, messy business. The longer an official is in office the greater their grip on the levers of power. Al French and company have a firm grip. In organizing and supporting the removal of Dr. Lutz they are operating against the will of a strong chorus of local voters. Remember that in 2022, assuming we survive this pandemic.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. For contrast to French's exercise in power politics I recommend listening to Breean Begg's presentation in the discussion of French's motion to fire Dr. Lutz. (3:28:30 to 3:36:48 in the video) Beggs reminds us of "the importance of presuming the good intentions" of people with whom we differ. He then opines at length over his community-minded reasons to vote against firing Dr. Lutz--reasons I find compelling. Contrast Beggs' words to Woodward's vindictive statement, "best news I've heard in a long time."