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Thu., Nov. 20, 2008, midnight

Our View: Limits on health officer’s speech would hurt community

Dr. Jason Eberhart-Phillips isn’t the only one who should disapprove of a restriction included in the contract he was offered to become Spokane County’s next health officer. The residents who would have been his ultimate boss should object, too.

The absence of severance pay in the proposal is pretty much between the doctor and the board of the Spokane Regional Health District. But a requirement that he “seek the concurrence of the SRHD Board of Health prior to taking a public position on potentially controversial issues surrounding public health” was not in the community’s interest.

The district’s clumsy parting with former health officer Dr. Kim Thorburn two years ago still seems to be on the board’s mind. Thorburn, never one to conceal her views, had a relationship with her overseers that was prickly at times. That contributed to her dismissal, which was accompanied by $125,000 in severance pay.

Thorburn’s firing had nothing to do with her credentials and capability. Rather, it was attributed to communication and administrative concerns. Gov. Chris Gregoire had appointed her chairperson of the state Board of Health, and even some of those doing the firing had complimentary words for her professional skill and expertise. Still, when the board convened at a forum to hear Thorburn make a public statement in her own behalf, it refused to let community members speak.

It’s been two years since Thorburn’s firing, and, as Dr. Ed Gray, health officer for Stevens, Pend Oreille and Ferry counties, predicted at the time, it has proved hard to fill a vacancy created under such circumstances. That’s evidenced by a paucity of candidates and Eberhart-Phillips’ decision to turn down the Spokane County offer.

The board, dominated by elected officials, is sensitive to public dissension. It’s no surprise that it might want to avoid discomfort like that sometimes wrought by Thorburn’s no-nonsense candor.

But politicians’ interest in shaping public perceptions can’t trump the community’s unfiltered access to frank talk about matters of public health. If that foments tension between the board and its health officer, better that it play out in public, so residents can reach their own conclusions. If it comes to terminating Thorburn’s successor, let it happen in the glow of full accountability.

It is unclear as to how fully the language of the proposed contract was intended to stifle Eberhart-Phillips, but the words, as drafted, speak volumes. They are likely to make the job even more difficult to fill.

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