There were a lot of lengthy presentations and discussions during Monday’s six-hour-long State Board of Health meeting, but the decision on whether to open an investigation in response to three complaints that Spokane Health Officer Bob Lutz was improperly fired, in violation of state law, wasn’t one of them.
The board’s decision was almost immediate and unanimous.
I’m not joking when I say “immediate.”
There was brief instruction about the law and how the board can proceed when they receive a complaint against a health officer or administrator. In short, the board’s task was to:
- Determine if they have jurisdiction
- Decide to launch an investigation or not
The board asked a few questions of their lawyer, the most important being about the actions the board is allowed to take. Upon concluding the investigation:
- The Board may remove Clark “should it get that far.”
- The Board may not reinstate Lutz.
The Board was then asked if they felt the need to recuse themselves. None did.
Stephen Kutz, a board member representing the Cowlitz Tribe in SW Washington, was the first to speak, saying he felt that the evidence was sufficient to launch an investigation. He then made the motion to investigate with an assist from Fran Besserman, of Stevens County.
Immediately making a motion like this is not common.
But both Kutz and Besserman felt the evidence was clear.
After discussion, board members appeared to agree, and Secretary of Health John Wiesman suggested the agency hire a private agency running the investigation and that the Health Department, if the motion passed, would look for funds to contract with a qualified group.
In the words of Secretary Wiesman:
“We owe it to the community to do our best to get the facts and have the transparency needed.”
Kutz wanted to go even further, asking to ensure that whomever is selected for the investigation not just be a lawyer. He said it would be relatively straightforward to figure out if there were procedural violations of the law.
He also wanted an expert to dig in and see if there was undue political influence exerted on public health decisions, saying:
“We need someone with a strong public health background, not just a lawyer, who will check off whether the [state laws and] policies were followed.”
After more discussion, Board Chair Keith Grellner of Kitsap Public Health called the question and the board voted unanimously to launch a preliminary investigation.
In all, it took less than 30 minutes.
It’s hard to overstate how quickly this happened.
As a veteran of probably too many boards in my life, I’ve seen bodies like this take more time to discuss the brand of coffee served at board meetings.
But the decision didn’t feel flippant. The board members were informed, they actively cited the complaints. One even quoted the Spokesman-Review coverage.
In the words of board member Jill Wood (Island County):
“It’s our duty to launch an investigation”
Positive steps. Still, this process could take a while.
Local Public Health 101
It’s easy to let the hard work of public health disappear into the background.
If the system is working well, people shouldn’t even notice it, right? But then when things get chippy, controversial and potentially deadly, a number of questions spring to mind and send a person like yours truly scrambling to bone up on why things are the way they are. Immediate questions:
- Why the hell is our public health board basically all electeds and basically zero professionals?
- Has this caused problems in the past?
- What can we do about it?
Let’s start with #2: Yes it’s caused big problems before
The SRHD has fired a health officer before under a cloud of controversy. In 2006, Dr. Kim Thorburn was canned after 9 years at the agency. The vote was unanimous but public outcry at the meeting turned incredibly contentious.
Back then, Thorburn’s allies lobbed allegations that the board was acting as an instrument of the business class more than stewards of public health. Sounds familiar.
Then, as now, the majority of the board was politicians or political appointees.
Okay, so #1, why?
The part of state law that authorizes local health districts dates to 1967, and is unequivocal:
TLDR, 53 years ago the legislature said, “hey county commissioners, form health boards and stuff.” It also sounds like a city over 100,000 can opt to do their own thing? Not sure if that is still on the books (the public health laws have been amended at least once since then, in 1993).
The Spokane Regional Health District’s bylaws were last updated in 2018 and further spell out how the Spokane Commissioners decided to compose their board:
Cool so the Commissioners decided to let the cities into the game, too, but wrote the rules so that they and their appointees would always constitute 50% of the board. Not exactly an even playing field, but when has politics ever been fair?
The bylaws define what constitutes an elected official, but absolutely nothing governs who gets appointed. It’s not even clear you need to live in Spokane County:
This is a stark contrast to our state board — four at-large professionals, one local health officer (which, ironically, is currently Bob Lutz), two consumers of healthcare (civilians, essentially) and the Secretary of Health.
Why would the state board be comprised of professionals and local districts almost entirely by politicians?
The clarity of that question and the absurdity of the likely answer is breaking my brain. I’m going to need to turn away from the void before
Alright, so #3, What can we do?
Did I hear someone say it’s time for
Gonna be honest, this isn’t going to be super clear. There are a lot of possible people to call. It’s not exactly clear which can most quickly intervene. Still, let’s try. I’ve seen a number of people saying
Call the Governor’s office.
If anyone can veto county-level shenanigans and restore order, it’s the guy who oversees this collection of counties we call Washington. UNKNOWN: Can he though?
Phone: (306) 902-4111
Submit a complaint to the Board of Health
Obviously the board oversees the local districts, and they’re the body who can remove Health Officers and administrators: UNKNOWN: Do they have the same jurisdiction over Health Boards?
Email: [email protected] | Phone: (360) 236-4110
Call your local state legislator
These are the dummies who wrote the state law that got us into this mess. What they create only they can tear asunder. DRAWBACK: This is probably the most time-intensive option.
Good news is, seems like our lawmakers are sick of it, too:
And at least one of them, the pride of District 3, might already be working on it:
Seems like a good time to:
Find your state reps and reach out
Speaking of Mayor Woodward
She clarified the comment Rep Riccelli referenced above … by doubling down on it.
I wish I had a less awful item to end on, but I don’t!