Many local leaders in the City of Spokane stood behind ousted Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz last week, while Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward stood out as an exception.
In a letter to the Board of Health in advance of its decision to fire Lutz on Thursday, Woodward described his firing as “the best news I’ve heard in a long time.”
Speaking with The Spokesman-Review on Saturday, Woodward acknowledged that her letter was “disappointing to a lot of people.”
But she stood by the statement.
“I wanted to be very honest and transparent about what my reaction was because I saw that as an opportunity to begin collaborating regionally again like we had early on (in the pandemic),” Woodward said.
Woodward expressed hope for a better relationship between her administration, the Spokane Regional Health District and other local leaders following the departure of Lutz.
Lutz was axed after district Administrator Amelia Clark, his boss, accused him of being insubordinate, spending health district funds without approval, and behaving toward female employees in a sexist manner. Lutz also drew Clark’s ire for writing opinion columns published in The Spokesman-Review without board approval and marching in a Black Lives Matter rally that exceeded the state’s COVID-19 limits on public gatherings.
He countered many of those assertions and, in a statement made by his attorney, said he believes his firing was due to the politically unpopular decisions he’s made during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a letter to the state Board of Health – which will investigate whether Lutz’s firing violated state law – Lutz’s attorney pointed to Woodward’s letter as evidence that political pressure was at play.
Lutz’s letter highlighted that Woodward wrote about her frustration “that we have not progressed faster in our effort to limit the speed of the virus, take smart and measured steps to reopen the economy, and be a model for the rest of our state, region and country.”
The removal of Lutz, who has been the face of Spokane’s response to the pandemic, sparked community outrage. Area superintendents and college presidents raced to laud Lutz’s leadership, and a union representing health district employees announced a vote of no confidence in Clark.
Woodward had no such praise for Lutz.
“I’m just speaking from my experience, and my experience level is much bigger and broader than, I would say, the superintendents’ and probably the college presidents … for several months I had a different experience,’” Woodward said.
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who was one of three Board of Health members to vote against firing Lutz, said he was surprised by Woodward’s statement.
Lutz gave the public the most up-to-date insights on the virus in daily briefings, Beggs said, and made himself available, at length, to the leaders of Gonzaga University, Whitworth University, and Spokane Public Schools as they worked to reopen.
“To lose that expertise and full-time-plus capacity right as our (COVID-19) numbers are spiking, I can’t imagine why that would be the best news anybody has heard in a long time,” Beggs said.
Asked if he believes the decision to fire Lutz was political, Beggs said, “There are differences of opinion about what is best for our community, which I would classify as political factors.”
Woodward’s opinion in the statement, he said, “was that Dr. Lutz was not good for the economy, if I understand it right.”
Months at odds
The county’s initial COVID-19 response brought several local governments and agencies under a single roof at the Emergency Operations Center .
Since the dissolution of the EOC earlier this year, as it became clear COVID-19 would be a long-term crisis and not an immediate emergency, Woodward said leaders have been less able to take a unified message back to their respective communities.
Woodward questioned Lutz’s ability to be part of a team even while the EOC was still operational.
“I saw an unwillingness from Dr. Lutz to work with the city and to be a team player,” Woodward said. “I’ll take some of that blame because working together is a two-way street, it goes both ways, and I think we’ve failed to do that.”
Lutz could not be reached for comment Monday.
Woodward pointed to two central examples to illustrate her frustration.
When the health district was eager to hire contact tracers who identify the source of COVID-19 spread, Woodward said the city’s library director offered up his staff to chip in. But the health district balked, according to Woodward.
“It wasn’t until weeks and weeks later that the health district was finally able to get contact tracers hired and trained,” Woodward said.
She also pointed to issues at The Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena, which served as a temporary emergency shelter for homeless people this summer, allowing existing shelters to implement social distancing measures and reduce their capacity.
Concerned about the potential for community spread after a person at the arena tested positive for COVID-19, Woodward said she contacted Lutz to ask about protocols and advocate for increased testing among people experiencing homelessness.
Lutz wasn’t willing to broaden testing and instructed Woodward that, in the future, she should reach out to the health district’s spokesperson with questions and concerns, she said.
It’s unclear if, at the time, Spokane had the resources to conduct such sweeping, proactive testing of its homeless community. The health district did not return a request for comment Monday.
The single case of COVID-19 at the arena was in a man who was not an overnight guest and was isolated within hours of his arrival, according to Mike Shaw, CEO of the Guardians Foundation, which operated the shelter.
Shaw could not speak to the health district’s reasoning if it did indeed decline broad testing, but guessed “it was probably because the protocols were working.” He credited the health district’s homeless outreach team for its work screening shelter guests for potential COVID-19 symptoms.
“We were very pleased with their show of force on a daily basis, they had a team of five or six people there every day, and that takes commitment,” Shaw said.
Woodward was one of several elected leaders to push Lutz in June to back the county’s advancement to Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Washington reopening plan.
Lutz rebuked the request, arguing local COVID-19 data did not support further reopening of the economy. He was later proven correct, as hospitalizations increased and elected leaders backed down.
Despite that conflict, Woodward denied working behind the scenes to support Lutz’s ouster, as many quickly speculated on social media when his removal was announced by the health district.
“I’m not a member of the health board, I’ve not been a part of any discussions or decisions,” Woodward said.
Regardless of their disagreements, Woodward argued leaders have a responsibility to continue to work together.
“I found that differing opinions weren’t welcome,” Woodward said of Lutz. “I represent many different opinions. The county is made up of many different opinions. All those voices deserve to be heard, no matter what the decision is.”
Now the county, and the nation, are seeing record levels of COVID-19 infection. Woodward said she would not advocate for the county to advance to Phase 3 – an impossibility given the statewide pause on advancement ordered by Inslee – given the current data.
The community “has to do everything we can to limit the spread,” Woodward said, which may include “targeting hot spots and tightening restrictions,” but also gleaning lessons from areas that have kept transmission rates down.
She also said local leaders need to begin discussing “how we can open when the time is right in a safe manner.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.