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Eye On Olympia

Spokane County’s long-simmering health district tensions draw attention in Olympia…

OLYMPIA – In what one senator described as “Spokane versus Spokane,” health and government officials clashed Monday over a proposal to remove most of the elected officials who now oversee the Spokane Regional Health District.

“Unfortunately, our regional health district has been politicized,” Sen. Chris Marr told a Senate committee.

Marr’s SB 5812 would replace most of the politicians on the board with doctors, business people and others. Nearly 2  1/2 years after the board fired Dr. Kim Thorburn as the county’s chief public health officer, he noted, no permanent replacement has been found.

“It presents tremendous risk,” he said. “… Overwhelmingly, my constituents are saying that this is something that needs to happen, and it needs to happen before we are subjected to a major public health crisis in Spokane County.”

There are now nine local elected officials on the board, plus three citizen members. Marr’s plan would pare that down to three elected officials and six others, including two doctors and two business people. Two of the elected officials would be county commissioners; the other would be from Spokane.

The health board doesn’t like the idea.

“As elected officials, we are responsible for a $24 million budget,” said Bill Gothmann, a Spokane Valley city councilman and vice chair of the district’s board. It’s a bad idea to have so small a percentage of elected officials on a board responsible for so much public money, he said.

He also suggested that if the elected officials go, so will the money.

“City health board members are crucial if any local dollars are to be raised for health departments,” he said. “No participation, no dollars.”


The district has an interim health officer and is now interviewing two permanent candidates, Gothmann said. He said he’s worried that the bill could hurt that recruitment effort.

Elected officials are all accountable to voters, added Eric Johnson, a lobbyist with the state association of counties. Citizen members don’t have that accountability, he said.

Proponents point out that under Marr’s plan, two of the public members would be chosen by the county commissioners. (The bill says the others would be chosen by the local chamber of commerce and medical society.)

The proposal is backed by the Spokane County Medical Society and the state medical association.

“This is an organizational structure that has just been dysfunctional,” said Carl Nelson, with the state medical association. “It’s time to try a different model.”


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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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