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Shawn Vestal: There’s no excuse for the silence of these ‘leaders’ on Lutz

UPDATED: Fri., Oct. 30, 2020

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

“The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may maintain control over the instruments that they have created.”

–Washington Public Records Act

The leaders of the Spokane Regional Health District put on a sickening display Friday.

As the pandemic enters a crucial seasonal stage, they attempted to oust the health officer, Dr. Bob Lutz, without a replacement or explanation, and offered a stubborn, irresponsible refusal to provide even a tiny bit of information as to why.

In fact, during their no-news conference on Friday, district administrator Amelia Clark and board member Ben Wick, the mayor of Spokane Valley, seemed unable and unwilling at times to clarify a simple timeline of events, or provide even the vaguest, most general sense of the basis for the decision.

It was a travesty. These supposed leaders sowed confusion, muddied the waters, and denied the public what it is owed: an explanation of what our government is doing and why.

In this void, the public is now completely at sea, unable to evaluate how Lutz’s attempted ouster does, or does not, reflect on the public leadership and information that he has provided, and drowning in speculation and uncertainty. The secrecy is also a gift to conspiracists and mask refuseniks, some of whom are already celebrating this as a victory.

Clark should immediately step forward, give it another shot and actually tell the public what has happened.

If she can’t, maybe she’s in the wrong job.

Likewise, the members of the district board – so many of whom are elected officials – should recheck who they work for, reconsider whose butts they are supposed to protect, and eliminate this confusion now.

Maybe it was justified to try to push Lutz out the door, but many in the community and inside the health district, reportedly, are skeptical. Many wonder whether this was orchestrated by pro-business open-Spokane supporters, by doubters who have resisted the strict health-first approach. Others think it’s a victory for pandemic denial, a blow against masks and social distancing and caution about reopening.

No one involved in this – neither the leadership nor Lutz – have any prerogative to secrecy, or legal cover that outweighs their duty to the public.

Board members Al French, Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney – the county commissioners – should tell the public what they know.

Board members Breean Beggs, Karen Stratton and Betsy Wilkerson – the Spokane City Council representatives to the board – should tell the public what they know.

Board member Ben Wick – the Spokane Valley mayor and board member who participated in the no-news press conference Friday – should speak the hell up, along with Valley council member Linda Thompson and Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman.

If they think they can’t tell it all, they can certainly tell more, and in particular, they can make it clear whether the events have anything to do with the information and guidance the community has relied upon so far.

Clark and the board have retreated to the legal justification that attempting to push Lutz out was a personnel matter, and therefore private. This is a real exemption in the law, but it’s often used more broadly than necessary by officials who would rather keep a secret than share uncomfortable truths, or who are quailing over possible legal ramifications for what they’ve done.

And the board did this in a manner that can only be described as suspicious – holding an executive session following a decision not by the board (which would have had to be public) but by Clark, the administrator. If the past is any guide, the future will bring us answers, and those answers will show us that the efforts at secrecy had nothing whatsoever to do with serving the public.

Remember the Frank Straub Affair?

There are protections in the state’s public records laws for personnel decisions about public employees. These exemptions vary in cases of misconduct or discipline. There are also distinctions between employees and “public officers” or “public servants,” who have heightened public accountability under the law.

Lutz fits both of those definitions. He is not a mere employee.

It’s hard to imagine a more public public officer than Lutz has been this year; the spirit and letter of our public records laws call for decisions this important, and for public officials themselves, to operate in the sunshine.

Understanding this decision is obviously, urgently in the public interest.

There may indeed be tension in the law here. But these would-be leaders must resolve that tension in favor of the public and the spirit of the law: the community is owed an understanding of this decision.

Right now, these leaders are carrying an enormous outstanding debt to all of us.

The public should call on them to pay it.

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