July 16, 1995 in Nation/World

County Seizing Health District; Lax Laws Feared

By The Spokesman-Review
 

David Swink is Spokane County’s top environmental cop, a public health protector out to nail developers who install illegal sewer systems and restaurateurs who operate without permits.

He helped shut down a septic disposal business owned by County Commissioner Steve Hasson’s campaign co-chairman. He even tried to prosecute the county parks department for operating an illegal sewage dump spewing human waste near a lake.

But Swink is sinking in political quicksand and so is the independence of the Spokane County Health District.

Within a few weeks, Spokane County commissioners plan to sign a resolution without public comment to put the health district under its umbrella. It’s a move many say will lead to lax enforcement of public health regulations.

Swink says commissioners already are undermining his authority and told him to find another job.

“It’s about more than keeping my job,” Swink says. “I built up this department. I am not going to bend to politics. But even if they weren’t going to fire me, I can’t work here anymore.”

The targets of some of Swink’s enforcement actions, along with Hasson and even Swink’s mild-mannered boss, regard him as a stubborn, tactless, heavy-handed bureaucrat.

Commissioners will have the power to take his badge in January, when they absorb the health district.

Many district employees and public health advocates view the merger as a hostile takeover fueled by what they perceive as the County Commission’s lust for power and desire to reduce environmental obstacles to developers.

The Washington State Department of Health is so concerned, it’s sending its top official to investigate. State Secretary Bruce Miyahara says the Spokane County Health District is already one of Washington’s best. Why tamper with it?

Takeover critics not only fear outbreaks of food contamination and threats to the region’s water supply from reduced enforcement, but dramatic cuts in social programs for poor women and children.

Hasson defends the merger, saying public health will never be at risk. The county can do a better job managing the health district, he says, through its vast resources, including a bigger computer system and human resources department.

If the county does well with the health district, Hasson says, he’ll go after the Spokane Transit Authority.

Regional service providers like STA and the health district, he says, need stern “parents” instead of big, blurred boards of directors. Hasson thinks he’ll make a good father.

Swink was a public health regulator with the state of Missouri when he was hired in March 1993 to oversee Spokane County inspections of sewers, restaurants and landfills.

His wife’s arthritis wouldn’t be as painful in Spokane’s drier climate, he reasoned, so they left his family’s farm in Poplar Bluff. He earns $49,200 a year, or $20,000 to $30,000 less than other department heads.

Now he’s sending resumes to other low-humidity states.

Earlier this year, Swink was forced by his boss - Dr. John Beare, who heads the health district - to refund fines levied against six unlicensed food vendors at the Spokane Interstate Fairgrounds, records show.

Swink says the ultimate insult came when Beare, after meeting with county commissioners and the fairgrounds promoter, made him sign a letter of apology. “I had to apologize for doing my job,” he says.

County commissioners make up three of the eight board members who control the health district. The board includes three Spokane City Council members and two smalltown mayors appointed at large.

But county commissioners made it clear six months ago that the health agency would soon be theirs.

Swink says Beare has caved in to their pressure ever since. Beare’s supporters - and there are many - say he’s stuck in an impossible position. He has to fight for his job and his employees while not appearing to oppose the takeover and without resisting commissioners’ authority.

Beare concedes his job is political, but says he stands firmly behind his staff, including Swink. While he admires Swink’s technical skills, Beare says he “lacks people skills.”

“There’s a philosophical difference between how you carry out enforcement responsibilities and how you don’t,” Beare says. “You don’t always throw the book at them.”

Swink sees environmental laws in two colors - black and white.

He has been stymied in recent attempts to shut down an illegal and hazardous sewage system at Fish Lake southwest of Spokane. Wanting lake access, the county parks department bought the land and inherited the sewage lagoon operation from former owner Tom Myers.

DJ’s Restaurant & Lounge is connected to the sewage system, which never received a permit to operate and was unknown to health district regulators until earlier this year, records state.

Swink filed an affidavit of probable cause with the county prosecutor’s office. He wanted county lawyers to close the Fish Lake site because county parks officials had defied an order to shut down the sewer system.

The next day, Swink and Beare were summoned by the commissioners. Swink was told to wait outside the commissioners’ office while Beare and the commissioners agreed there would be no prosecution.

Rather than shut down the restaurant and the sewage system, Swink’s boss granted the county six time extensions - through October - to make repairs.

Meanwhile, bacteria-loaded effluent is seeping through the lagoon’s bottom and might be oozing into Fish Lake, Swink says.

In another enforcement case last November, one of Swink’s inspectors fined six vendors for giving out food samples without a permit.

State Sen. Bob McCaslin, R-Spokane, even weighed in, accusing Swink and his staff of “abrasive” attitudes, being “overzealous” and threatening Spokane’s economy by hurting tourism.

Swink fired back his own letter: “A food service operator who improperly operates a facility can cause illness and death. I hope you will agree, as you recall the 1993 E. coli outbreak, that this can have a much more significant effect not only on health, but on the economy.”

State health official Miyahara says if the health district doesn’t enforce its laws, which must meet or exceed the state’s, his agency can take over the health district and charge local jurisdictions for services.

“Dr. Beare thinks most of public

health is warm fuzzies,” Swink says. “He doesn’t feel comfortable with enforcement, but that’s our job.”

Health district employees and citi zens have formed a group to fight the merger, but concede it’s a done deal.

The group’s name gives away its members’ feelings: Spokane Citizens Against Takeover, or SCAT.

Few if any employees at the health district support the takeover. But only a handful have the guts to talk about it. There’s been a recent rash of county firings, they note.

Lindy Haunschild and Torney Smith say they no longer can remain silent knowing public health will be at risk when the process becomes politicized. They fear that controversial social programs like needle exchanges and condom giveaways will be the first to go. Then protection of the drinking water supply - the aquifer.

Smith, who manages the department that assesses risks to public health, says he has heard Hasson stress many times the need for approving more septic tanks in the Spokane Valley instead of expensive sewer hookups.

“Development is wonderful, but it should not come at the expense of public health,” Smith says.

Haunschild, a social worker, fears programs for women and children will be stripped because of the public’s venom against substance abusers and welfare recipients.

She says that for every dollar spent on prevention - from pre- to postnatal care to parenting classes - society saves $7.

“Kids who are traumatized when they are little grow up and traumatize others,” Haunschild says. “These programs are critical for public health.”

County Commission Chairman Phil Harris says the health district is a perfect fit under county government. One of the first changes will be putting environmental health - Swink’s shop - under the county’s Public Works Department.

That way, he says, landowners will have one-stop shopping for building, planning and health permits. Developers will still undergo thorough reviews, however, Harris says.

“We’re becoming more userfriendly,” he says. “But we’re not doing any special favors or throwing out any laws. Everything I’m doing I’m looking in the mirror at and feeling good about it.”

Harris, Hasson and newly appointed Commissioner George Marlton visited more than 100 health district employees on June 28.

An employee videotaped the meeting while Hasson did all the talking.

“I want you to know the (County) Commission was just as surprised to learn that we were going to be recipients of the health district as I think you folks were to learn that you were going to be part of Spokane County,” Hasson told the group.

The Washington Legislature this year passed a law that allows counties to absorb health districts by a majority vote of the county commission. But it makes takeovers optional.

County commissioners for months have said the takeover is mandatory. They now concede it’s a choice.

Some employees called Hasson’s hand, but most bit their lips while he cut the room’s tension by making self-effacing jokes.

“I think all of us elected officials are going to be suspect,” Hasson told the group. “We just are. We are a bunch of bozos.

“… (But) I don’t think it’s our goal to come in and hack away at your health mission.”

, DataTimes MEMO: These sidebars appeared with the story: Undermined During his tenure as environmental health officer, David Swink: Was forced to apologize to an entertainment promoter for fining a half-dozen restaurants that operated without permits at the Interstate Fairgrounds. Tried but failed to shut down an illegal sewage system owned and maintained by Spokane County. Sought new work because Commissioner Steve Hasson has said he’s going to fire him.

Fighting the merger Citizens and employees of the Spokane County Health District are fighting the merger with the County Commission. Spokane Citizens Against Takeover will meet at 6 p.m. July 26. For the location, call organizer Ian Cunningham at 747-7397.

These sidebars appeared with the story: Undermined During his tenure as environmental health officer, David Swink: Was forced to apologize to an entertainment promoter for fining a half-dozen restaurants that operated without permits at the Interstate Fairgrounds. Tried but failed to shut down an illegal sewage system owned and maintained by Spokane County. Sought new work because Commissioner Steve Hasson has said he’s going to fire him.

Fighting the merger Citizens and employees of the Spokane County Health District are fighting the merger with the County Commission. Spokane Citizens Against Takeover will meet at 6 p.m. July 26. For the location, call organizer Ian Cunningham at 747-7397.


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