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Change pending for SCAPCA

A new state law could change the composition of Spokane County’s air quality board.

The five-member Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority board will meet this morning to interview candidates for an at-large position held by Michele Pope, a former nurse who hopes to keep the job.

Pope is competing for the spot against Melissa Ahern, a Washington State University-Spokane health policy and administration associate professor, and Dr. Darryl Potyk, Deaconess Medical Center’s medical education director.

Karen Lindholdt, a local attorney who specializes in clean air law, argues that a new state law should eliminate Pope from competition. The rule requires the at-large member to have “significant professional experience” in public health, air quality protection or meteorology.

Pope has been on the SCAPCA board or its advisory board since 1992. She has a nursing degree and a master’s in health service administration from Whitworth College, according to the resume she submitted for the job. Her last job was as a waste management coordinator for Empire Health from 1993 to 1996.

Pope did not return a call seeking comment Wednesday.

Lindholdt said Pope’s work experience was too long ago and doesn’t compare with Potyk’s or Ahern’s.

“All one needs to do is look at the qualifications of the applicants,” she said.

But state Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, who authored the law that affects the SCAPCA board, said it’s up to local officials to determine what qualifies as “significant professional experience.”

“I don’t really see it as the role of the state to weigh in on that,” Brown said.

Brown said recent events on the SCAPCA board, including controversy surrounding the resignation of SCAPCA director Eric Skelton in 2005, contributed to her decision to write the bill. Skelton said he left because he was pressured by the board to go easy on polluting businesses.

The new law also lowered the representation of county commissioners from two to one and gave a seat to Spokane Valley.

The agency’s board is made up of one representative each for Spokane County, Spokane and Spokane Valley. A fourth member represents all the other cities and towns in the county. The fifth position is the at-large member who is appointed by the rest of the board.

Before Brown’s bill was signed, at-large members were not required to have experience.

“The issues can be technical and complicated,” Brown said.

Potyk is an internist who received his medical degree from the University of California. He is a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington.

“In addition to the economic benefits of good air quality, I am particularly interested in our air quality as a public health issue,” Potyk wrote in his cover letter for the job. “In my professional life, I take care of many patients with a variety of pulmonary ailments.”

Ahern earned a doctorate in economics from Florida State University. She is an expert on global oil depletion and is studying the health impacts of coal production.

“I believe that I can make a significant contribution to the SCAPCA Board … by providing information regarding the short- and long-term economic impacts of issues related to air quality,” she wrote in her cover letter.

Pope did not submit a cover letter in reapplying for the job.

Lindholdt said the board, including Pope, has been more concerned about protecting businesses than protecting public health.

“I don’t think they understand what the Clean Air Act requires,” she said. “They don’t understand their role.”

SCAPCA Chairman Matthew Pederson said the main focus of the board has been to protect health and ensure air pollution laws are followed. But the agency can’t ignore concerns of businesses that pay salaries and provide health insurance, he said.

“The business community is very important to the region,” he said. “We have to have a balance between the two.”