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Our View: Bill that would alter health district bears promise

For more than two years, the Spokane Regional Health District has been without a permanent health officer, and the board can’t seem to make up its mind if it wants to keep looking or come up with a different administrative structure.

Two Spokane lawmakers, state Sens. Chris Marr and Lisa Brown, are now offering a legislative solution intended to get the district on steadier footing. Their promising plan would establish a health board that relies on professional and technical expertise more than on political finesse.

The health district’s difficulties go back further than the firing in late 2006 of Dr. Kim Thorburn, whose 10-year tenure had been marked by periodic clashes of will with board members and a vote of no confidence by district nurses.

One controversy arose, for example, in 2003 when the board stripped nonelected members of their voting power. Two years later it was reinstated.

Under current state law, the health board in a noncharter county such as Spokane consists of the county commissioners, although they can expand it so long as nonelected officials don’t constitute a majority. Marr and Brown’s bill would reverse that expectation.

Senate Bill 5812, introduced last week, would establish a nine-member board that included two county commissioners but no other elected officials. The balance of the membership would include two physician representatives, a health care professional, two business representatives from the restaurant and building sectors and two public members.

The commissioners would appoint the others, so accountability would be maintained with county voters. But the decision-makers and policy-setters would acquire specialized expertise in the areas that the health board deals with. That is an asset often missing in boards populated mostly by elected officials.

Shortly after Thorburn’s dismissal, the board considered a new structure that would eliminate the administrative role of the health officer. Then it changed its mind. Lately a new structure is back on the table.

Meanwhile, a California candidate was interested in the $165,000-a-year vacancy, then he wasn’t. Then he was again. Then he wasn’t again.

Bill Gothmann, one of two Spokane Valley City Council members on the board, disapproves of the proposed legislation, saying the current system “works very well.”

We think the record suggests otherwise.

And if this bill becomes law, and works, maybe it could be extended to the Spokane Transit Authority.

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