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Shawn Vestal: The Spokane Regional Health District’s leadership should handle criticisms in the daylight

Wilson
Wilson

At what point does poor management at the health district become a community health problem in and of itself?

This question now hangs before the Board of Health, thanks to an escalating series of criticisms of Amelia Clark, the administrator of the Spokane Regional Health District, from people with long and reputable tenures at the district.

Two former division directors at the agency have recently called on the board to take a closer look at a pattern of “continued and escalating chaos” at the district and high turnover at the agency as a result of Clark’s management style and approach.

Their recommendation is simple and direct. Fire Clark.

These complaints are the latest in a cascade that started with Clark’s botched firing of former health officer, Dr. Bob Lutz, last fall. That prompted a vote of no-confidence in Clark by the district’s union – a vote described as a super-majority – and continuing criticisms from district staffers. While these complaints have been fairly steady, a lot of what’s happening at the district has remained obscure and undetailed.

Until now. Lyndia Wilson brought receipts.

Wilson, a 30-year district employee who retired in July as the director of preventive public health, sent the board a scathing critique of Clark’s leadership, including example after example of instances that depict a leader who is defensive, unwilling to listen, retaliatory and untrustworthy – to say nothing of one who seems at odds with the very mission of a public health agency.

“My letter to you is more than about the firing of our health officer, but for you to understand the type of administrator you have put at the head of SRHD,” Wilson wrote. “Over my 30 years, the environment in the agency is at its worst, staff describe it as hostile and toxic, feeling they have nowhere to turn.”

She concluded her four-page letter with a warning that Clark’s leadership was imperiling the district’s programs: “If action is not taken soon, the agency will not be able to meet its contractual and legal requirements due to staff leaving the agency.”

Clark herself has not commented on this, or on the state investigation of her handling of the Lutz affair, or anything else, really. She is declining to speak with regard to these specific allegations on the advice of counsel, the district said Monday.

The board has similarly had little to say publicly. That should change, and it should change now: The board ought to take up the concerns about Clark, and to address them publicly in some fashion, when it meets in a special meeting apparently called to deal with these complaints.

Both the board members – most of whom are elected officials – and Clark herself owe the public a duty that is at least as compelling as covering their rear ends legally. And the board should work as hard in trying to bring the truth to light here as it did to hide the truth in the Lutz affair.

Whether they will satisfy this debt is another question.

Wilson’s letter, sent July 26, was a thunderbolt. It was very detailed, offering numerous allgations of Clark’s leadership failures, including responding negatively to questions or criticisms, shutting down input from the staff, failing to gather information before making decisions, insulting and bullying behavior, and disregard for expertise of the staff.

These criticisms are particularly credible coming from Wilson, whose long tenure at the district included serving as the incident commander for the COVID-19 response. Her letter came a few days after a similar letter to board members from another recently retired longtime district official, Sheila Masteller. Masteller retired in February 2020 as division director for community and family services – a retirement she said at the time was speeded up by her sense that Clark was an “authoritarian, top-down administrator.”

In her letter, she emphasized staff turnover at the district, asking the board to look into the “significant and continuing employee exodus, particularly of several skilled, experienced public health professionals in key leadership and programmatic roles and to the significant increase in administrative support positions while programs are being significantly cut or eliminated.”

In her letter, Masteller does not specifically call for Clark’s resignation as Wilson does. But in an interview Tuesday, and in earlier comments to the board of health, that’s the course she has called for, as well.

Much of the board conversation that follows these letters – if indeed the board engages in a robust and detailed effort at fact-finding and accountability – can be hidden inside executive sessions and under the bushel of employee privacy. Similarly, Clark can stay mum behind a lawyer and refuse to answer the damning criticisms if she chooses.

It would not be the first time that public officials took legal cover rather than the painful route of transparency.

But to do so would be a disservice to the public, which now has even more reason to wonder about the health of its health district.

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