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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

State health board approves investigation into firing of Dr. Bob Lutz

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, 2020 outside the Spokane Regional Health District office.  (Libby Kamrowski/ THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Washington State Board of Health voted unanimously Monday to conduct a preliminary investigation into Spokane Regional Health District Administrator Amelia Clark’s role in the recent firing of Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz.

The state board will have a weeklong sequence of events to sort through. One question the State Board of Health likely will look at is when Lutz was effectively fired.

Lutz has said he was fired by Clark on Oct. 29, and health district officials confirmed he was no longer an employee of the district as of Oct. 30.

The district’s health board didn’t vote publicly to fire Lutz until Thursday, a week later, and state law requires a public vote to fire a health officer.

In a letter to the State Board of Health, Michelle Fossum, the Spokane Regional Health District attorney, said Clark placed Lutz on paid administrative leave after he did not resign on Oct. 30. Her letter says Clark took Lutz’s health district-assigned property from him as well on Oct. 29, all in the week prior to the Spokane health board’s vote.

There were three complaints before the state board last week, including one signed by more than 100 local academics and health care workers. Michelle Davis, executive director of the state board, said more complaints were filed before the Monday meeting.

Some Spokane community members tuned into the State Board of Health meeting on Monday during the public comment period earlier on Monday, asking the board to open an investigation.

Former health officer Dr. Kim Thorburn called the removal of Lutz “deja vu,” recalling how she was ousted by the Spokane board in 2006.

Lutz’s attorney, Bryce Wilcox, also submitted a letter to the board that included Clark’s list of reasons for asking for his dismissal as well as his responses that he submitted to the local health board.

State law requires that the local health officer should not be removed until after notice is given and there is opportunity for a hearing.

The complaints allege that Clark’s taking of Lutz’s keys, agency badge, laptop and cellphone and locking him out of the district offices equates to him being effectively fired before notice was given and a hearing held.

State law allows the Board of Health to investigate and potentially hold a hearing to find out if state law was broken, in this case, if Clark broke the law by firing Lutz the week before there was a hearing that ended his employment.

The state investigation will have a narrow scope. Although the state board has authority under state law to investigate health officer or administrator actions, it can’t investigate local health board actions.

“The board does not have authority over what the local board of health did,” Lilia Lopez, attorney for the State Board of Health, said at Monday’s meeting.

While the investigation might determine whether or not Clark broke state law in her firing of Lutz, it can’t reinstate Lutz as health officer.

Lutz, who is also a State Board of Health member, was not present at the virtual meeting on Monday.

Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman suggested that the board hire an independent firm to conduct the investigation because most board members having personal relationships with parties involved.

“I am concerned about how things have transpired,” Wiesman said. “I don’t have the facts, and I think that for the community, it’s important to get our best sense of transparency here in terms of what really happened and the only way and the only group that can make that happen right now is the State Board of Health.”

Wiesman said it has been incredibly challenging for health officers and administrators to do their work in the midst of balancing science and public policy during the pandemic. He said the pandemic has laid bare the importance of both funding and governance in the public health system.

“I believe (the pandemic) asks us again to look at governance of our public health system. Do we have the right governance structure in place in terms of how it’s organized?” Wiesman said, noting he is concerned about the pressure health officials can receive from board members who govern them.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories 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.