Members of Spokane County’s clean-air agency board deadlocked twice Thursday before agreeing to appoint a new member.
Melissa Ahern, a Washington State University-Spokane health policy and administration associate professor, won a third vote for the at-large seat of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority board.
She will replace Michele Pope, a former nurse who has been on the board for two terms and applied for reappointment.
Board members interviewed Ahern, Pope and a third candidate, Dr. Darryl Potyk, Deaconess Medical Center’s medical education director, before the vote.
Ahern, who is not related to Republican state Rep. John Ahern of Spokane, earned a doctorate in economics from Florida State University. An expert on global oil depletion, she is studying the health impacts of coal production. She also teaches a class about health care policy and politics.
In her presentation to the board, she stressed that as a health care economist she has studied ways to prevent the need for hospitalization. Improving air quality will prevent illnesses, she said.
“This type of board is absolutely central to limiting health care costs,” she said.
Pope was criticized at the meeting by board member Jeff Corkill, who represents the city of Spokane, for putting business interests ahead of public interests.
“Most of her decisions have not been from a public health point of view,” Corkill said.
He pointed to a debate last year when Pope questioned the science behind studies that show human activity as a major cause behind global warming.
In an interview after Thursday’s meeting, Ahern said she believes the evidence points the other way: that humans are a factor.
Airway Heights Mayor Matthew Pederson defended Pope and said she has been “balanced” by showing concerns for public health and small businesses.
“I appreciate somebody who is willing to stand up and say, ‘Hey, what about the little guy,’ ” Pederson said.
County Commissioner Todd Mielke argued that Pope, who has been on the board for eight years, provides important historical perspective.
“My concern is that we do have some kind of consistency,” Mielke said. “I think it’s important that we don’t fall into the same mistakes we have made in the past.”
But Spokane Valley City Councilman Mike DeVleming said change should not be feared.
“A fresh perspective on a board is good,” DeVleming said.Ahern was nominated by Corkill immediately after her interviews. But her candidacy failed on a 2-2 vote.
Mielke then nominated Pope. But that also failed on a 2-2 vote.
That left board members asking how to resolve the situation until Mielke nominated Ahern again and changed his vote to support her.
“I didn’t see where waiting until next week or next month would make a difference,” Mielke said after the meeting. “The decision was easily resolved because of the quality of the candidates.”
Only Pederson opposed Ahern’s appointment on the final vote.
Much of the interviews and discussion involved a new law that requires the at-large member to have “significant professional experience” in public health, air quality protection or meteorology. Mielke and DeVleming said they felt all three candidates met the standard. Corkill questioned Pope’s health care strengths.
Pederson said Ahern’s background doesn’t meet the intent of the new law.
“Although she studies health issues, she has no experience in any medical field,” Pederson said.
After the meeting, Pope, who has a master’s degree in health service administration, said she didn’t want to respond to the concerns raised about her candidacy. She said she originally volunteered for SCAPCA after moving to the area.
“I have lived in other places where the air was cleaner and knew that there would be room for improvement and I wanted to be part of it,” she said.