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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Emails between Dr. Bob Lutz and Spokane Mayor Woodward show tense, but not dysfunctional relationship

Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz appears at a COVID-19 news conference in September. He was fired two months later, and emails between him and Mayor Nadine Woodward obtained by The Spokesman-Review shed new light on the tension within the area’s coronavirus pandemic response team.  (Kathy Plonka)

Exchanges between Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and former Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz were dotted by moments of friction months before Lutz’s ouster last November.

But emails between the two that were released last week don’t show an all-out breakdown in their relationship in the months leading to Lutz’s controversial firing.

After helming the county’s pandemic response, Lutz’s dismissal and the subsequent change in leadership received Woodward’s ringing endorsement.

Months earlier, she expressed a similar sentiment.

In a June 23 email, Woodward cheered the city’s Parks and Recreation director for pushing Lutz to allow a drive-in fireworks event on July 4.

“Good on you for pressing the issue and doing the doctor’s homework for him,” Woodward wrote. “The community will thank you!”

The problem?

Woodward didn’t send that email to the Parks and Recreation Director.

She sent it to Lutz.

“I don’t believe this was meant for me,” Lutz succinctly replied.

Screenshot of e-mail exchange between Dr. Bob Lutz and Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.
Screenshot of e-mail exchange between Dr. Bob Lutz and Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.

Emails obtained by The Spokesman-Review through a public records request shed light on the occasional friction between city leaders and Lutz, who was at times cautious to endorse city reopening plans and urged officials to demonstrate safe behavior during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But despite moments of chafing, the emails do not show Lutz and city officials devolved into open animosity.

“Dr. Lutz was under intense pressure and scrutiny, and she fully recognized that. In their interactions, she did what she could to support him,” Brian Coddington, a spokesperson for Woodward, told The Spokesman-Review on Wednesday. “Her push has always been to be as collaborative as possible.”

In June, Lutz emailed Woodward with a link to a Spokesman-Review photograph, which showed the unmasked mayor near an unmasked member of the public. “Mayor, while it’s not always easy to wear the recommended face coverings, we both know the importance of reinforcing their use during every opportunity to do so,” Lutz wrote. “(Y)our assistance in this messaging is greatly appreciated.”

Screenshot of e-mail exchange between Dr. Bob Lutz and Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.
Screenshot of e-mail exchange between Dr. Bob Lutz and Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.

Although the June event preceded Gov. Jay Inslee’s statewide masking order, masks were recommended at the time. Woodward and the person with whom she was speaking were also clearly within the 6 feet of social distance advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

The photograph shows Woodward speaking to a community member – mask in her hands, not over her mouth – during the fourth consecutive night of protests over racial injustice in Riverfront Park.

Woodward took Lutz’s advice, according to Coddington.

Lutz also drew criticism for attending the protests at the same time when he was urging people to practice social distancing and avoid large gatherings. Spokane County Commissioner Al French castigated Lutz for marching in a demonstration in the moments before the county’s Board of Health fired him.

Lutz was terminated in November after a falling out with health district Administrator Amelia Clark, whose numerous allegations against him included insubordination. Lutz, who declined to comment for this article, has refuted her claims.

Woodward found herself the subject of some ire after celebrating the prospect of Lutz’s firing in a letter to county leaders, calling it “the best news I’ve heard in a long time.”

Although Woodward has remained adamant that she never advocated publicly or privately for Lutz’s dismissal, she has since voiced frustration with his leadership. She was also one of several local elected officials who pleaded with Lutz to endorse the county’s advancement into the state’s reopening Phase 3 in June, only for Lutz to summarily reject them, citing increasing spread of COVID-19 in the county.

“It had less to do with the individual and more to do with the philosophy of collaboration and partnership, and that’s why the mayor was expressing some optimism in a new way of thinking,” Coddington said.

Woodward was mostly an outlier in her disapproval, however, as leaders of local schools and colleges quickly came to Lutz’s defense.

Email exchanges between officials shed light on the constant considerations Lutz made as city officials planned to host events and offer services as restrictions loosened in late spring and early summer last year.

He weighed in even on the small details of city functions during the pandemic, such as public health signage at local parks and the operation of Numerica SkyRide at Riverfront Park.

The emails also show a local health officer struggling, at times, to keep up with the continually evolving restrictions ordered by state and federal leaders.

For the July 4 fireworks, Lutz expressed concern that the drive-in fireworks event was in a “grey zone” because the county had not yet moved into Phase 3 of the reopening plan Gov. Jay Inslee had previously outlined.

His consternation elicited swift concern from city officials, who pointed out that the state already had guidelines for drive-in events in Phase Two, and that the event was built to conform to them.

Lutz relented.

“It’s great there are actually drive-in theatre guidelines! Admittedly, one I haven’t looked at,” Lutz replied.

After he offered some additional advice for the event, it went off as planned on July 4.

Lutz did not always serve as a red, or even yellow, light to the city’s plans.

On June 3, he emailed city officials urging them to consider – and fund – the limited reopening of city pools.

“Given Spokane’s long-standing history with aquatics, I would fully support all efforts to provide opportunities to our community,” Lutz wrote.

Ultimately, the city chose not to reopen the pools in a limited capacity due to the cost of doing so, not because it was barred by Lutz or state guidelines.

Moments of unity

Despite the inherent tension between the two, Woodward did acknowledge the protest by anti-maskers and restriction opponents outside Lutz’s South Hill home in July.

After the protest, which remained peaceful, Lutz emailed Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl and Woodward to express gratitude for the “professional” demeanor of officers detailed to his house and their “continued check-ins.”

Screenshot of e-mail exchange between Dr. Bob Lutz and Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.
Screenshot of e-mail exchange between Dr. Bob Lutz and Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.

Woodward replied, “I’m so sorry you, your wife and your neighbors were subjected to this protest.”

“This type of activity, in front of your home, crosses the line of decency,” Woodward wrote. “I’m grateful for the role our officers played in the protection of you and your property.”

Where are they now?

Months later, Lutz has taken on a role assisting in the pandemic response at the Washington Department of Health, and his ouster has led state Rep. Marcus Riccelli to undertake a legislative effort to depoliticize public health.

Woodward, on the other hand, has told The Spokesman-Review that her relationship with the health district has improved under the leadership of interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velazquez.

“My relationship with the health district has immensely improved, so we’re all working together again,” Woodward said last month. “That’s all I wanted.”

She now meets regularly with Clark and Velazquez.

“Those meetings weren’t always happening,” Coddington said.