Former Spokane County Health Officer Bob Lutz was fired illegally, preliminary state investigation concludes
May 12, 2021 Updated Wed., May 12, 2021 at 10:06 p.m.
Spokane Regional Health District Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz uses his sweater sleeve to hold the microphone during a COVID-19 update press conference on March 16, 2020 at the Spokane Regional Health District building. (Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Evidence suggests that Spokane Regional Health District Administrator Amelia Clark violated state law by firing Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz before he received a hearing, according to a preliminary state Board of Health investigation released this week.
Clark’s removal of Lutz, who was hired in 2017 and had led Spokane County’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, immediately sparked confusion among the community and even Spokane Board of Health members.
For days, it was unclear who was the county’s health officer as Lutz and Clark issued conflicting statements about whether the former had been asked to resign or been fired.
Washington law says a health officer cannot be removed until after notice is given and there is an opportunity for a hearing before the board that appointed them. The Spokane Board of Health has the jurisdictional authority to hire and fire the health officer, according to its own bylaws.
The preliminary investigation found evidence that Clark both removed Lutz as the health officer and that Lutz was not given notice or an opportunity for a hearing before she did.
Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney, who is the chair of the Spokane Board of Health, released a statement on Wednesday afternoon contesting the investigation’s findings and defending the process by which Lutz was fired.
“To be clear, the SRHD Board, as stipulated by Washington law, and only the SRHD Board, terminated the employment of Dr. Bob Lutz with SRHD. Dr. Lutz could not have been terminated on October 29, because he continued to receive his full pay and benefits until termination by the SRHD Board on November 5, 2020,” Kuney said in a statement released by the health district.
In her statement, Kuney explains that it is normal to lose access to the district when being placed on administrative leave.
The preliminary investigation addresses this, and emails cited by investigators revealed that Clark did not place Lutz on administrative leave until Nov. 2, which she made retroactive to Oct. 30.
“Ms. Clark’s retroactive placement of Dr. Lutz on paid administrative leave until his employment was terminated by the SRHD Board on November 5, 2020 did not change the fact that she removed him from his position as Local Health Officer on October 29, 2020,” the investigation says.
Ultimately, the State Board of Health will have to decide whether Clark violated state law based on this investigation and a further hearing, if they think that is warranted. The State Board of Health will meet on May 27 to discuss the report and potential next steps.
The Spokane Board of Health does not plan to comment any further on the investigation until after the May 27 meeting, citing the potential for Lutz to file a lawsuit.
On October 29, 2020, it is “undisputed” that Lutz was never given notice or an opportunity for a hearing before his meeting with Clark and Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick, who was the Spokane Board of Health chair at the time, according to the report.
Instead, Clark handed Lutz a severance package that listed Oct. 29 as his last day, took his keys, cellphone and laptop and told him to contact the human resources department for the rest of his belongings. Wick escorted him out of the building after this meeting. Clark sent an email to the SRHD team that alerted them that Lutz’s last day was Oct. 29.
On Oct. 30, the health district held a chaotic press conference that failed to resolve confusion surrounding Lutz’s departure. Lutz was placed on administrative leave retroactively but did not resign and then the Spokane Board of Health ultimately fired him after a hearing on Nov. 5.
The State Board of Health authorized this preliminary investigation after receiving two complaints, one from former Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart and another from local medical ethicist Maria Howard, about the potential unlawful firing of Lutz.
The State Board of Health hired Karen Sutherland, a Seattle-based attorney, to conduct the preliminary investigation. Sutherland’s 52-page preliminary investigation was released online this week in advance of the State Board of Health meeting on May 27.
Sutherland interviewed Clark; Lutz; Wick; Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs; former Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman; Lyndia Wilson, division director at the health district who recently announced her retirement; and Sue Winters, the human resources director at the health district. She also reviewed various emails and documents as part of her investigation.
The State Board investigation is distilled into a single question: whether Clark “refused or neglected to obey or enforce” state law when terminating Lutz.
When the State Board of Health meets to discuss the investigation, it has a few options.
The Board can request more information and take no action. They can determine that no violation of the law occurred and dismiss the complaints, or they can determine that a violation of state law may have occurred and schedule a hearing with Clark.
It is only if the State Board of Health decides to bring Clark in for a hearing that it will determine whether she is guilty of failing to obey or enforce state law.
If the State Board elects to have a hearing and finds Clark violated the law, they can remove her from her position, although this is not required. The State Board can also direct Clark to “remedy the failure,” but this could not include rehiring Lutz, since she cannot hire or fire a health officer in her role.
Beggs told The Spokesman-Review Wednesday that he is limited in what he is allowed to say and has been told to direct questions to the board’s attorney.
He said he was “not surprised” by the preliminary findings.
“It seemed to capture all the information I had that I’m allowed to share publicly,” Beggs said. “I will support the state board of health in continuing their process until it is concluded, and then based on all the information, I will provide my opinion.”
Stuckart told The Spokesman-Review he was impressed with the thoroughness of the report. He appreciated that it encapsulated varying points of view but still came to a conclusion on what actually happened.
Stuckart, who co-founded the Public Health Action Coalition Team of Spokane (PHACTS) to advocate for structural changes that aim to depoliticize boards of health after Lutz’s firing, said he was compelled to file a complaint after watching the Oct. 30 news conference.
“It was just so obvious either they were lying or they broke the law, because I’ve been on enough boards and sat in enough meetings that have to follow the Open Public Meeting Act, that they couldn’t have authorized her to fire him in the executive session,” Stuckart said.
Stuckart called on Clark and the health board members who backed her to resign.
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