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Shawn Vestal: State probe of Lutz firing puts the lie to the attempt to rewrite history

UPDATED: Fri., July 30, 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)

“(T)he local health officer shall not be removed until after notice is given, and an opportunity for a hearing before the board or official responsible for his or her appointment under this section as to the reason for his or her removal.”

The Revised Code of Washington

County Commissioner Mary Kuney says Dr. Bob Lutz was not fired as the county health officer Oct. 29.

No, Kuney said in a recent public statement, Lutz was merely put on leave, pending a vote by the Health Board, of which she is the chairwoman, seven days later.

Naturally Kuney claims this, because to acknowledge otherwise would to be acknowledge that district administrator Amelia Clark – acting based on who-knows-what behind the scenes – broke the law when she fired Lutz on Oct. 29, as the evidence in a state investigation very strongly suggests she did.

Kuney’s assertion seems to be just another chapter in the continuing effort to rewrite the history of the irresponsible, incompetent ouster of Lutz – a rash, politicized decision, made at a crucial point in the pandemic’s surge.

Under the law, only the board had the authority to fire Lutz. Under the law, it could only do so after Lutz received notice and there was an opportunity for a public hearing.

So naturally Kuney says, in the latest draft of the official history, that Lutz was fired by the board and only the board.

The preliminary results of a state investigation – along with the simple human memory of anyone alive and paying attention to what happened last fall – tell a different story.

‘Effective October 29’

On Oct. 29, Clark called Lutz to a meeting. This followed a meeting of the Health Board, in which an executive session was held, apparently to discuss concerns about Lutz. No vote of any kind was taken following that session.

Lutz arrived to the meeting with Clark to find Ben Wick, Spokane Valley mayor and health board member, there as well. Clark raised some concerns she had about his performance, centered around his supposed insubordination; he said he stood by his actions.

At that point, whatever terms you choose to use about Lutz’s employment status, he was finished.

Lutz said he was told by Clark, “You’re terminated, effective immediately.” When he tried to respond, he said, she reiterated, “Effective immediately.”

Lutz told investigators that she handed him a severance package, and he needed to return it to her the following day by 4 p.m.

“Dr. Lutz stated it was apparent the decision was a fait accompli and that this was sort of perfunctory,” the investigation says.

The severance agreement, prepared by district counsel, included the repeated use of this phrase: “Employee was separated from employment effective October 29, 2020.”

Clark said, in her interview with investigators, that she didn’t think she had said anything that would cause Lutz to believe he’d been terminated. She asked him to resign, she said, and gave him a severance package; if he didn’t accept that, she would “go forward and request approval of termination” from the board.

“Ms. Clark stated that Dr. Lutz, as the health officer and as a board member, should know that she doesn’t have that authority because it’s in the bylaws that she would have to get it approved,” the investigation said.

Wick’s version of events was similar: He said Clark asked Lutz to resign and said she’d be “seeking his termination” if he didn’t.

Lutz was escorted from the building by Wick, and his ID badge, key, cell phone and laptop were taken from him, and his email account and computer access were disabled.

That night, Breean Beggs, the Spokane City Council president and Health Board member, says Clark told him by phone “that she had terminated Dr. Lutz at a meeting that afternoon. … Ms. Clark said that she gave Dr. Lutz the right to convert his termination to resignation in lieu of termination if he gave her notice of that the next day.”

Beggs also told investigators about a conversation he had with Wick, of which “his general recollection was that Ms. Clark had notified Dr. Lutz that his employment was terminated.”

The director of the district’s Preventive Public Health Division, Lyndia Wilson, told investigators that she was told by Clark that “Ms. Clark had decided to let Dr. Lutz go.” Wilson said her understanding was that Lutz was being terminated immediately.

‘Full support of the board’

The public announcement of Lutz’s departure on Oct. 30 was a confusing, contradictory disaster. It was clear the recognition had dawned that Clark had overstepped, and a bizarre, clumsy attempt to unring the bell began.

Clark announced to the staff by email that “October 29 was Bob Lutz’s last day at the Health District.” A news release issued later that day said, “The Spokane County Board of Health asked … Lutz to resign, effective Oct. 30.”

The news release also said the decision to ask Lutz to resign was made at an executive session of the board before the meeting between Lutz, Clark and Wick.

Clark would later say there was an internal misunderstanding that led to the release of such false information, and blamed the district’s spokeswoman, Kelli Hawkins. Clark said she couldn’t remember whether she’d reviewed it herself.

At the news conference that followed Clark refused to say whether Lutz had resigned or was fired, going to absurd extremes to avoid answering the question. She left the distinct impression of someone trying very hard not to tell a lie while also trying very hard not to tell the truth.

Asked once if he had resigned, Clark said, enigmatically: “The date was effective yesterday.”

Asked if Lutz was still an employee, she said she couldn’t answer that because it was a personnel issue.

Asked again if he had quit or was fired, Clark said: “It was effective yesterday.”

Another reporter asked, “What was effective yesterday?

Clark said, “That Dr. Lutz is no longer the health officer at the health district.”

The transcript then notes an off-camera voice saying, “Starting today,” and Clark corrected herself: “Starting today.”

She continued to refuse to say whether he quit or was fired. She also claimed, falsely, that she had acted “with the full support of the board.”

But even as she was claiming that, Beggs was telling others it was not true. In a text he sent during the news conference, which investigators obtained, he wrote: “They are incorrectly stating that it was the health board who made the decision.”

Fired again

The confusion would continue. The board would issue another press release trying to clean up the first one and the confusion from Clark’s remarks. Meanwhile, outraged citizens began flooding board members with complaints and questions.

The mayor, on the other hand, sent a letter dancing on Lutz’s grave; she and other conservative leaders, including the county commissioners sitting on the health board, had long been unhappy with Lutz, in part because he had not been more committed to supporting their opposition to the governor’s emergency order.

In the days that followed, the district took steps to clarify that Lutz was on an administrative leave, and the board called a special meeting. In the interim, his duties were reassigned to others, efforts to find a temporary replacement began, and “termination procedures” began at the district.

At the Board of Health meeting on Nov. 5, the majority did their level best to act as if they were very concerned about some very petty matters. Minor issues – such as the fact that Lutz had not followed policy in purchasing food for workers putting in long hours – were treated as major problems. Political complaints – such as the fact that Lutz had dared to write an op-ed about racial health disparities when the board majority did not want that issue raised – were treated as performance issues.

Commissioner Josh Kerns smarmily retailed a complaint that Lutz had touched a woman on the shoulders and made her uncomfortable – demanding whether Lutz thought we should “believe women.” Al French pretended to be concerned about the governor’s mask mandate while complaining that Lutz attended a Black Lives Matter protest.

On and on it went, as the health board tried to square what Clark had already done with the law. In the end, Lutz was fired and the county was left, amid a surge of COVID-19 cases, without a strong, experienced public health leader at the helm.

It was a debacle, and it started with Amelia Clark on Oct. 29. The state investigation, in a preliminary finding, said the “preponderance of evidence” shows she illegally fired Lutz. It also notes that the action taken to put Lutz on administrative leave – the crux of Kuney’s denial – was done “retroactively.”

Just a minor revision to the official history.

The state Board of Health will now review the case and decide whether to pursue a hearing to determine whether the investigation’s preliminary finding holds. If Clark is found to have broken the law, she could be fired by the state board.

However this plays out, though, there’s nothing preliminary about the fact that Lutz’s dismissal could not have been managed more poorly. Even if it were richly deserved – rather than petty and political – Clark’s management of the situation was incompetent.

The board that could not tolerate his job performance should be very concerned about hers.

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