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Ex-Chicago public health official offered long-vacant regional post

After 2 ½ years without a public health officer, the Spokane Regional Health Board decided Friday to offer the job to an epidemiologist who served as a senior executive for the nation’s third-largest public health agency.

The board voted unanimously to enter into contract negotiations with Dr. Joel McCullough, former assistant commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health, who interviewed for more than two hours behind closed doors with board members as well as top officials of the Spokane Medical Society.

The medical society, which has at times been critical of the board, supported the decision Friday.

“We are really excited that they found a viable candidate,” said Jan Monaco, chief executive officer of the medical society, who along with its president and president-elect, Dr. Courtney Clyde and Dr. Gary Knox, interviewed McCullough before making their recommendation. “We thought he had all the qualities necessary to be a good health officer.”

McCullough was the only remaining finalist for the job after Dr. Rachel Herlihy, of the Utah Department of Health, withdrew her name from consideration last week. McCullough also met with Spokane Regional Health District managers.

The medical society has disagreed with the board over district management since the board’s dismissal of Dr. Kim Thorburn in November 2006, specifically over proposals to dilute the authority of Thorburn’s successor. Neither the society nor McCullough voiced those concerns Friday.

Monaco said the society believes board members will offer McCullough the autonomy he needs to be a good health officer.

“They will be respectful of his opinions, and he will be respectful of their opinions as well,” she said.

For his part, McCullough said he didn’t “foresee any of the differences that occurred with the previous health officer.”

McCullough, who studied infectious disease at Sacred Heart Medical Center while in medical school in the 1980s, said he enjoyed his time in Spokane and wants to live in a medium-size city in the Northwest.

“Washington state has a reputation as a leader in public health,” he said.

Raised in North Carolina and Connecticut, McCullough received his medical degree at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tenn., in 1986. He received a master’s of science at the University of Iowa Graduate School of Preventive Medicine in 1990 and a master’s of public health from the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine in 1995.

Besides working for the Chicago Department of Health from 2001 to 2008, McCullough served as an epidemiologist at the National Center for Environmental Health in Atlanta from 1996 to 1998. He also was an epidemiology supervisor for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in Cincinnati from 1998 to 2001.

The board’s vote Friday authorized Dr. David Crump, Liberty Lake City Council member and head of the selection panel, to negotiate with McCullough. Under the pending contract, he would make $165,000 a year.

Crump said that in McCullough the board found the level of experience it was looking for “as well as a stated philosophy of open communication.”

Board Chairman Mark Richard called McCullough “a gentleman of integrity and strong passion for serving the community.”

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