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Candidate’s withdrawal frustrates health district

Recruitment efforts to hire a new leader for the Spokane Regional Health District have failed so far, with the favored candidate recently dropping out of contention.

Health district officials are now hoping to fill the job by late summer – more than a year and a half after the controversial dismissal in late 2006 of former health officer Dr. Kim Thorburn.

Qualifications include a medical degree and a master’s degree in public health administration. The salary range is $130,000 to $145,000 – not necessarily great pay considering the earning potential of medical doctors.

The health district hired Dallas-based Waters-Oldani Executive Recruitment to find a new officer.

After advertising on a couple dozen Web sites and in trade publications, along with a mass-marketing letter, the initial search netted fewer than a doen resumes.

Six of those were considered, but two were ruled out as unqualified. Two others dropped out.

Of the two interviewed, one was invited back for a second meeting, but he declined when family considerations conflicted with the timing.

Torney Smith, the district’s administrator, called the hiring failure unfortunate – especially since the district had been keen to hire the last candidate.

“That person would have been great,” Smith said.

Records show the district has so far paid $24,345 to recruiters on a $32,000 contract. Late last year, the health district complained about the performance of the recruiter.

In a Dec. 4, 2007, e-mail to recruiters, Smith wrote: “I am very frustrated and quite disappointed in the service you have not provided or responses to our requests. … Our board is trying to accomplish preliminary interviews prior to the holidays and the services we have contracted for seem lacking.”

The next day Charles Anderson, chief executive officer of Waters-Oldani, wrote back: “Torney, I am very disappointed in our failure to provide the RHD with high-quality service and apologize for this situation.”

Anderson has since taken over the Spokane search and said during an interview this week that he expected to have multiple applicants ready for a first round of interviews by mid-May.

Smith said the relationship has been mended under Anderson’s attention and that the district “feels very confident.”

The health district board did not renew Thorburn’s contract in November 2006, citing communication problems with board members, who are elected leaders from Spokane County, the city of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake.

Thorburn is medical director for Planned Parenthood of the Inland Northwest. She has declared her intention to run for the Spokane County Commission seat held by Todd Mielke.

Finding her replacement has taken much longer than anticipated, partly due to the health board’s initial debate on whether to split the job into two positions, administrator and medical officer. Another factor centered on whether the district should hire a recruitment firm, or conduct the search – as it did to find Thorburn – using district staff. Anderson and Smith said the publicity and acrimony surrounding Thorburn’s dismissal have not affected the quality or number of applicants.

What may be complicating the recruitment is competition from the Tacoma-Pierce County Board of Health, which also is seeking a director.

Five finalists were interviewed by Tacoma health officers without the board making a hire, said Rick Talbert, board chairman and a Tacoma city councilman.

That board has renewed and expanded its search using similar qualification requirements and salary range as those sought by health district officials in Spokane. Anderson said his marketing effort includes contacting 500 people to solicit interest in the Spokane job, as well as renewed advertising.

“We’re dealing with a narrow niche within the community of medical doctors,” he said. “But there are people out there for Spokane and we’re going to find them and bring them in.”

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