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Now-retired Spokane health district employee asks board to fire administrator Amelia Clark

UPDATED: Fri., July 30, 2021

By Kip Hill and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

Longtime Spokane Regional Health District employee and former director for preventive public health Lyndia Wilson wrote Spokane Board of Health members a letter this week recommending they fire Administrator Amelia Clark.

She described the county’s public health agency as “hostile and toxic” under Clark’s leadership, with employees afraid for their jobs.

Wilson worked at the district for 30 years and had more than 100 employees in her division when she retired July 1. She also was the lead incident commander for the district’s COVID-19 response.

Board members reached by phone Friday said they were still reviewing the contents of the five-page letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Spokesman-Review. Those members who attended Thursday’s board meeting discussed the letter in a 30-minute unplanned executive session at the request of Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson.

Clark did not participate in the executive session and declined an interview request to discuss its contents. She has been a lightning rod for criticism after leading the bungled firing of Dr. Bob Lutz last year in the midst of the pandemic.

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The letter from Wilson details numerous examples of situations that have led to the “worst environment” she’s ever witnessed at the district.

“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,” Wilson wrote. According to Wilson’s letter, there is no way for staff or managers to provide the Board of Health feedback on Clark’s performance as an administrator.

Wilson suggests that if the board doesn’t fire Clark, it should conduct a performance review of her, with an assessment including input from staff, management and community members.

Kevin Freeman, mayor of Millwood and vice chair of the health board, declined to comment on the letter.

“I think as a board we’re digesting the statements in the letter,” Freeman said. “We obviously will need to discuss this further.”

Spokane City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who has been vocal about allegations of bullying and mistreatment at Spokane City Hall, cautioned against rushes to judgment based on Wilson’s letter.

“I don’t want to get down in the mud with this,” Stratton said. “I worry that when things like this happen you are literally destroying someone’s career.”

Wilson, who spoke with The Spokesman-Review, said that since Clark arrived in fall 2019, no performance review has been conducted. She recalled these kinds of reviews being conducted every year or year-and-a-half when former Administrator Torney Smith was at the district.

Smith confirmed that such reviews took place while he was in charge of the district, and were often used as “constructive” ways to improve the district’s work and direction. He estimated they took place irregularly every 12-18 months.

Wilson told The Spokesman-Review there is a culture of fear at the health district and that even as a division director, she did not feel comfortable speaking out as candidly as she did in her letter until she retired.

“That’s why I didn’t say anything until I left,” Wilson said.

After she retired, Wilson continued to hear from district employees who feel like they have nowhere to voice their concerns without fear of retaliation, which is why Wilson, safe in retirement, also felt obligated to write some of their concerns. Her letter included numerous examples of Clark’s leadership style and decisions that she said were detrimental to employees and the public mission of the health district.

Wilkerson said she called an executive session because the district can’t receive a letter with such detailed complaints and not address them. But there was no executive session planned before the meeting. Commissioner Mary Kuney, who is chair of the health board, agreed to have the executive session but did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Wilkerson said a process is being put in place to address the letter.

Stratton said there was evidence that the situation at the health district had grown “toxic.” That was concerning, she said, given the lengths board members went to recruit and hire Clark to lead a strategic reorganization of the district and its finances.

“We knew this was a big search. This was a big move to replace an administrator that had been there so long,” Stratton said. “We were very thoughtful in that search and who we talked to.”

“There’s a little teeny bit, the fact that a lot of us put a lot of heart, soul and time into this, it’s hard to see this happen,” she continued.

According to the terms of her contract, Clark may only be terminated by a majority vote of the health board. The state Board of Health voted earlier this summer to hold a formal hearing on whether Clark violated state law during the firing of Lutz, the district’s former health officer. The state Board of Health could also choose to remove her from office, remedy her actions or determine there was no violation following a future hearing.

Wilson hopes the board will take her letter and warnings seriously.

“My biggest fear is that the board will not pay attention or learn from it,” she said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story 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.

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