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At least 7 health advisory council members resign in protest of Dr. Bob Lutz’s ouster

A protester holds a sign in favor of Health Officer Bob Lutz during a protest against the Spokane Board of Health’s ousting of Lutz, held on Nov. 1 outside the Spokane Regional Health District office. A former high-ranking official with the Washington Department of Health who was fired for criticizing Spokane’s health board filed a lawsuit Tuesday claiming her ouster violated her right to free speech.  (Spokesman-Review photo archives)

At least seven members of a panel established at the request of Dr. Bob Lutz in 2018 to advise local health officials on community concerns resigned Sunday, citing the controversial ouster of the former regional health officer.

“We will not be complicit in supporting administrators who have worked to subvert the public’s health,” a memo, authored by the resigning members of the health district’s Health Advisory Council shared with media on Sunday, read.

The council’s membership totals between 12 and 15 members, depending on whether all positions are filled.

One of those members is Michael Dunn, superintendent of Northeast Washington Educational Service District 101. All members said they took issue with the leadership of Health District Administrator Amelia Clark, who met with Lutz and pushed for his resignation following a closed-door session of the appointed health district board in late October.

Dunn repeated in a phone interview Sunday that Clark had mischaracterized a conversation he had with the administrator about Lutz, a conversation that she used in support of seeking his termination.

“I think I was mischaracterized, and I think the fact that Ms. Clark did not check with me was professionally abhorrent,” Dunn said Sunday.

The actions by the health board have led some in the community to question whether changes are needed to their makeup and function, including state Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane).

In a statement released by the health district Sunday, Clark said she would move forward with a planned meeting with the remaining members of the advisory council this week and introduce interim health officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez.

“I am very sorry to see these members of the Spokane Health Advisory Council choose to discontinue their support of the health district during a time when staff are working tirelessly to keep the community healthy and safe during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Clark said in an emailed statement.

“The council plays a valuable role that allows the health officer to better understand the health needs within our community, and then share that information with the appropriate programs,” she continued. “I fully expect those conversations to continue with our Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez and with our future permanent health officer.”

That planned meeting Tuesday was what prompted several members to resign in protest. The advisory council was established by action of the health district board in October 2018, and calls for members representing multiple stakeholder groups in the community. That includes education, business, mental health, the environment, faith communities and more.

Brian Henning, a resigning member of the council and professor of environmental studies at Gonzaga University, said the council had been working with Lutz on several issues prior to the pandemic, chief among them being access to public health services for underserved communities.

“A lot of what we talked about what was having to do with health equity, and the disproportionate impact on people with fewer resources,” Henning said.

In addition to Henning and Dunn, other members announcing their resignation were Cynthia Fitzgerald, a registered nurse and director of professional development at Providence Health Care; the Rev. Genavieve Heywood with Faith Leaders and Leaders of Conscience of Eastern Washington and North Idaho; Petra Hoy, a community organizer; William Lockwood, an urgent care physician; and Pat Butterfield, a registered nurse and dean emerita of the Washington State University College of Nursing.

“It’s just a time for good leadership,” Butterfield said Sunday.

Dunn said his decision to resign should not be seen as a reflection on the interim health officer.

“I’m a supporter of Dr. Lutz, and I wish he still were our health officer,” Dunn said. “I don’t want to disparage Dr. Velázquez.”