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Spokane health district administrator to appear at formal state Board of Health hearing over Lutz firing

UPDATED: Wed., June 2, 2021

Dr. Bob Lutz, center, gives an update on the Spokane Regional Health District’s directives related to COVID-19 Friday, Mar. 13, 2020 at the SRHD headquarters. Lutz is standing between SRHD Administrator Amelia Clark, left, and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. A preliminary state investigation shows Clark violated state law by firing Lutz before he received a hearing, but now Clark will face a hearing of her own over the controversial ouster.   (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Dr. Bob Lutz, center, gives an update on the Spokane Regional Health District’s directives related to COVID-19 Friday, Mar. 13, 2020 at the SRHD headquarters. Lutz is standing between SRHD Administrator Amelia Clark, left, and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. A preliminary state investigation shows Clark violated state law by firing Lutz before he received a hearing, but now Clark will face a hearing of her own over the controversial ouster.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Washington State Board of Health unanimously voted to call Spokane Regional Health District Administrator Amelia Clark for a hearing, after a preliminary investigation found that Clark fired former health officer Dr. Bob Lutz in potential violation of state law last fall.

Only the State Board of Health has the authority to determine whether Clark actually failed to obey or enforce state law, however, and members had a lot of unanswered questions on Tuesday, leading them to opt for a hearing.

“We’re left with, well, what led Ms. Clark to decide that she had been told she was okay to dismiss this physician and why is it that she chose to do it the way she did?” Tom Pendergrass, who made the initial motion for the board to call a hearing, said.

Ultimately, the State Board of Health has the authority to remove Clark from her position following the hearing. They can also direct her to remedy her actions or determine that she did not violate state law after all.

The hearing will be held under the Administrative Procedure Act, meaning witnesses can be subpoenaed and board members will have an opportunity to ask Clark questions directly.

On Tuesday, Karen Sutherland, who conducted the preliminary investigation, presented her findings to the State Board. Members asked several questions about her findings.

Some of those questions stemmed from Sutherland’s inability to get information from some Spokane Board of Health members who would not violate attorney-client privilege and disclose what happened during executive session meetings that preceded the Oct. 29 meeting where Lutz was terminated.

Ultimately, however, the complaints the state board are addressing are narrowly focused: whether or not Clark failed to obey and enforce state law.

Holding the hearing, board members hope, will illuminate what motivated her to fire Lutz.

“I’m really torn on this one. Having read the preliminary report multiple times now, at least based on what we have in front of us, it’s really clear to me, in my head, there was clearly intent to terminate Dr. Lutz,” Keith Grellner, chair of the Board of Health, said, noting the newspaper reports and initial press release that reported Lutz’s termination.

State law says a health officer cannot be removed until notice is given and an opportunity for a hearing before the board who hired them is given. Whether Clark failed to follow this part of state law is what board members will ask her about in the hearing.

“The hearing would help us out, because Ms. Clark, Dr. Lutz or anybody else we can get to testify would be under oath,” Grellner said. “And I think that would help us clear up some of these questions. This is not a simple, straightforward case, in my mind.”

After Sutherland’s preliminary investigation was published, the Spokane Board of Health issued a statement from Mary Kuney, who chairs the health board, saying that Clark couldn’t have terminated Lutz since only the local board has the authority to do that, and did so on Nov. 5.

Lutz was retroactively placed on administrative leave a few days after Clark fired him, but Sutherland said Tuesday that action didn’t negate his firing.

“Making it retroactive didn’t somehow un-fire him or un-terminate him,” Sutherland said.

State Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah and Lutz both sit on the State Board of Health, but neither of them was at the meeting. Shah recused himself because Lutz is now an employee of the Department of Health.

“The Spokane Board of Health did not provide a response, and Kuney did not respond to requests for comment by press time.”

A majority of the Spokane Board of Health supported the firing of Lutz in November, with only the Spokane City Council members and Jason Kinley voting to retain Lutz.

“I fully support the State Board of Health making a final determination on what happened in regard to Dr. Lutz’s removal as health officer,” Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said on Tuesday.

Now, the adjudication will be in the hands of an administrative law judge, who will act as the presiding officer over the hearing. The Office of Administrative Hearings will set the schedule and determine when the hearing will happen. The State Board’s attorney thought that could happen in the next few months.

The State Board opted to appoint an administrative law judge, so members could ask their questions and participate in the hearing almost like a jury.

And not unlike a jury, the State Board will get the final say in the matter.

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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