Dr. Bob Lutz was told to hand over his keys, agency badge, work laptop and cellphone last Thursday as Amelia Clark, administrator of the Spokane Regional Health District, thought she was firing him as county health officer.
He remained locked out of his job Monday even though only the Spokane Board of Health has the legal authority to fire him, Lutz said.
The unfolding story leaves Spokane County without a top public officer in the thick of rising coronavirus cases and an election week with two incumbent county commissioners – who also serve as health board members – on Tuesday’s ballot, Mary Kuney and Josh Kerns. Neither has returned numerous phone calls seeking comment nor have they issued a public statement surrounding the confusion. The third commissioner, Al French, also has not commented.
“To be clear, Amelia Clark fired me last Thursday. She told me in a meeting late Thursday afternoon that I was terminated ‘effective immediately,’ requested my SRHD identification, keys, cell phone and laptop, and told me I could contact HR to retrieve my personal items,” the statement Lutz released through his attorney says.
Lutz says he was given a severance offer, which he rejected.
“I refused to accept SRHD’s severance offer, as I do not think Ms. Clark’s actions were justified or lawful. As things stand, I was told I was fired and have been denied access to my office, phone, files, records and my computer since last Thursday. I do not know who is currently acting as the SRHD’s public health officer,” the statement says.
The Spokane Regional Health District has not returned requests for comment on whether Lutz is still the health officer and if he is not, who is. The district has not clarified this point even to its own board members. Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who serves on the Board of Health, said as of 6 p.m. Monday, he had still not received clarification from the health district on Lutz’s employment status. He had hoped the district would issue a statement, “but they didn’t seem willing to do so.”
“That’s why we need a public meeting. We need to hear from Dr. Lutz, Amelia Clark and Ben Wick. All three of them were at the meeting, so we need to hear their versions of what happened,” Beggs said.
Beggs declined to speculate on the potential legal ramifications for the health district, but did call for an investigation into what occurred at the closed-door meeting.
“Since I’m going to be in the role of a judge, as the rest of the board, I don’t really want to comment on the strengths of any one person’s version (of events),” Beggs said.
Both the Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health bylaws and state law prescribe how a health officer can be removed or approved.
The SRHD Board bylaw states “the board of health shall approve the appointment and termination of a District Health Officer.”
Approval is later addressed in the bylaws: “Approval of all actions taken by the board shall be by a majority of the votes cast.”
State law also prescribes protocols for removing a health officer, including a hearing about the reasons for that person’s removal.
“No term of office shall be established for the local health officer but the local health officer shall not be removed until after notice is given, and an opportunity for a hearing before the board or official responsible for his or her appointment under this section as to the reason for his or her removal,” state law says.
The health district has not disclosed why Clark made the effort tofire Lutz .
During a health district press conference last week and in media statements issued since then, officials have said the reason falls into the realm of “personnel issues” and “performance concerns” of the health officer.
The district says Clark “would not have sought the employment separation of Dr. Lutz during the COVID -19 pandemic if other viable options were available,” but she ultimately decided “the performance issues were such that they needed to be addressed immediately for the benefit of SRHD and the community.”
With speculation swirling about why Lutz has been asked to resign, the district will likely continue to remain tight-lipped until the public hearing, which could occur as early as Wednesday, although the board has not announced the meeting yet. It will need to give notice of the meeting 24 hours in advance.
“SRHD does not comment on the reasons for the separation of employment other than during the hearing before the board absent written consent of the affected employee,” says the SRHD statement issued Saturday.
Clark will not cite the exact reasons she is asking for Lutz’ termination without his consent to do so and thus far, Lutz has not granted the health district that consent, Kelli Hawkins, public information officer, confirmed to The Spokesman-Review.
Lutz refused to resign last week and has hired an attorney.
Clark is technically Lutz’s direct supervisor and she has the right to fire him, but only if the board votes to approve that recommendation.
Only a few board members have released statements.
Kevin Freeman, the mayor of Millwood who represents small cities on the health board, has received hundreds of emails and concerns about Lutz’s departure. He acknowledged that he and his fellow board members are taking a cautious approach.
“Because this is a personnel issue, legal requirements typically require confidentiality,” he wrote in a public letter on Sunday. “The SRHD and we as a Board have erred on the side of caution in dealing with this matter, thus the lack of specific information at this time.”
Health care providers, employees and other county residents have spoken out about the lack of transparency surrounding the attempted ouster. The Spokane Health Advisory Committee issued a statement on Monday asking for transparency.
“In a healthy democracy, it is important for decision-making to be transparent and in keeping with institutional bylaws,” the letter says. “During these very challenging times, decisions to remove a Health Officer should be made only after careful, thorough, and public deliberation.”
The Board of Health, which is made up of elected leaders and three appointed community members, will have the last word on whether Lutz gets to stay or go. Freeman wrote that he would vote to fire Lutz if his employment is “detrimental” to the district.
“If the Administrative Officer presents sufficient information during the hearing showing that Dr. Lutz’s continued employment as Health Officer is detrimental to the Spokane Regional Health District, I will vote for his termination. I do not make this statement lightly,” Freeman wrote.
“No single employee, regardless of their position or stature in the community, can be allowed to continue in their job if their actions are detrimental to the organization and the employees of that organization,” Freeman wrote.
The health district has announced who they want to be the interim health officer if the board fires Lutz. Dr. Mary Bergum, a licensed physician who leads the district’s treatment services division, would fill the role, following board approval.
Below is Lutz’s statement Nov. 2 statement in full, provided through his attorney Bryce Wilcox:
I understand from media reports that a SRHD Board meeting will be scheduled to address the status of my employment, although I have not been personally advised of such. I intended to await that meeting before commenting further, as I wanted to address the issues directly with the Board. However, recent statements from the SRHD contained inaccurate and misleading information concerning my separation from employment that need to be clarified. To be clear, Amelia Clark fired me last Thursday. She told me in a meeting late Thursday afternoon that I was terminated “effective immediately,” requested my SRHD identification, keys, cell phone and laptop, and told me I could contact HR to retrieve my personal items. She also provided me with a written severance offer, stating that I had until the next day (Friday) at 4:00 p.m. to resign and sign the agreement. The offer of severance required me to waive my claims against the SRHD in exchange for 3-months pay, and a confidentiality agreement preventing me from disclosing the settlement terms. I refused to accept SRHD’s severance offer, as I do not think Ms. Clark’s actions were justified or lawful. As things stand, I was told I was fired and have been denied access to my office, phone, files, records and my computer since last Thursday. I do not know who is currently acting as the SRHD’s public health officer.
Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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