Even on election day, the Health District saga continues

Hey y’all, I know we’re all focused on election day, but before it becomes the Super Bowl for nerds and wonks around here starting at 4 pm (when the first polls on the east coast), I wanted to give an update on the Bob Lutz controversy.

Hey y’all, I know we’re all focused on election day, but before it becomes the Super Bowl for nerds and wonks around here starting at 4 pm (when the first polls on the east coast), I wanted to give an update on the Bob Lutz controversy.

Needless to say, it’s been a lot.

People are rightly scared. No one at the Health Department seems to know — or at least no one is saying — who is in charge. There was a large protest on Sunday, following a smaller protest last Friday.

It’s still a mess, but now Lutz and the people who seem to want to keep him around are laying out their case:

Lutz on his “termination”

Dr. Lutz released a statement that challenges the timeline laid out by other health district officials and suggesting he was completely locked out of his duties. Here is the Spokesman rundown, but I’ll highlight his statement:

“To be clear, Amelia Clark fired me last Thursday. She told me in a meeting late Thursday afternoon that I was terminated ‘effective immediately,’ requested my SRHD identification, keys, cell phone and laptop, and told me I could contact HR to retrieve my personal items,” the statement Lutz released through his attorney says.

Lutz says he was given a severance offer, which he rejected.

“I refused to accept SRHD’s severance offer, as I do not think Ms. Clark’s actions were justified or lawful. As things stand, I was told I was fired and have been denied access to my office, phone, files, records and my computer since last Thursday. I do not know who is currently acting as the SRHD’s public health officer.”

It’s abundantly clear Clark does not have the power to fire Lutz. Only the board can do that. As of today, the board has not done that.

Breean Beggs outlines possible violations of state law

Monday afternoon Spokane City Council President Beggs released a statement that, point-by-point, outlines the case — using state law and the district’s bylaws — that Lutz is still technically employed, despite being locked out of the building. Of particular interest:

1. Pursuant to 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.” Spokane’s by-laws provide that the local health officer may only be appointed or removed by formal action by the Board of Health. Many read that to mean that Dr. Lutz remains employed by the SRHD as Spokane’s Local Health Officer, and if so, I hope that he will continue acting as the Health Officer until such time as the Board considers and makes a formal decision on the issue of removal.

2. RCW 70.05.120 sets out serious consequences for any violation of the law set out above. See a copy of those consequences pasted in below. Spokane’s Board of Health needs to investigate and remedy any potential violations of state law that interfered with our local health officer’s performance of his duties over the past few days and in the future until there is official board action on the issue of removal.

Read the full statement here.

RCW 70.05.120 — which concerns violations of the regulations governing local health departments — seems to indicate that interference with a Health Officer is a misdemeanor offense.

(4) Any person violating any of the provisions of chapters 70.05, 70.24, and 70.46 RCW … is guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be subject to a fine of not less than twenty-five dollars nor more than one hundred dollars or to imprisonment in the county jail not to exceed ninety days or to both fine and imprisonment.

It seems unlikely County Prosecutor Larry Haskell would prosecute, so the most likely recourse would be a disinterested party — someone who isn’t an employee or member of the board — filing a complaint with the state health department.

The broad takeaway here: It definitely seems as though two clear factions are emerging on the health board — those who want Lutz to stay and those who want him to go — and battle lines are being drawn

Administrator Clark is already involved in a different labor lawsuit

This one is messy.

The most direct recourse for Lutz is probably a federal labor lawsuit.

Clark has some experience with those. This story might point to a pattern of sketchy behavior by Clark in her firing practices, or it might be a disgruntled white guy crying “reverse racism.”

Daniel Walters at the Inlander reported yesterday that Clark has previously fired a different top health district official, Kyle Unland, who has since filed a federal lawsuit.

Take the time to read the whole article here — it’s really strange and hinges on Unland claiming discrimination against him as a white man — but I wanted to call attention to the way he was let go:

On Jan. 31, he says he raised the possibility he had been discriminated against with the Health District’s HR director.

Just two hours after HR told Clark about the complaint, Unland alleges, Clark sent out an email announcing that she was moving up the timeline to reorganize the agency, concluding that she didn’t need the Health District board’s approval to make her changes.

“[Four] days later I was sent home packing,” Unland says. “I got kicked out of the agency.”

He was told that because of the reorganization, his position had been eliminated and he was being laid off.

Unland asked if he could apply for any other open positions within the agency. He says Clark told him no. Then, according to Walters, “Unland claims he was escorted out of the building without even an opportunity to grab his things.”

Sound familiar?

Councilperson Stratton blames her constituents for jumping to conclusions

I’m putting this at the end because it doesn’t really advance the facts, but I can’t help but express my disappointment for how Councilperson Stratton responded to the crisis yesterday, after four days of silence by attacking her constituents:

It has been disappointing to observe the groundswell of reckless accusations and conspiracy theories regarding the Board of Health and the District staff.  Many have been quick to assume the worst motives of the Board and, incredibly, to assume that the Board and District staff are not guided by science during this pandemic. The accusations unfortunately are a sign of the times we live in.  Nonetheless, this remains a personnel matter, not a political issue.  I am hopeful that civility and a due regard for the truth will govern future public conversations on this matter.

Here’s the full release, which includes a non-shaming statement from Council Member Wilkerson.

So let’s just take a second here to recap:

  • We are in the middle of the worst pandemic on over a century
  • We continue to reach new infection highs. Beds are full in Kootenai County and the overflow is landing in Spokane (and even Seattle).
  • With flu season approaching, all indications are the worst is yet to come.
  • People are justifiably scared for their lives.

Amid this:

  • Spokane’s Health Officer was locked out of his office and prevented from doing his duties.
  • No interim replacement was named
  • Over the course of now five days, the official response to people’s fear has been abject silence.

The problem here isn’t the people of Spokane, Councilperson Stratton. It’s the Health District board.

I can’t imagine a worse look for an elected official than someone who (as part of a governing board that seemingly lacks control of its executive staff) throws an entire region into turmoil and then blames the victims.

It’s infuriating.

That’s all for now! Happy election day. Be safe.

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