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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Loophole gives commission the chance to do its worst on health board

It has been beyond obvious a change in the governance of the health district was needed.

But the attempt by Rep. Marcus Riccelli to reduce politicization and increase expertise on the district’s board – while admirable in its aim – contained a disastrous loophole. The county commission cynically and deviously stuck their collective thumb through it and into Riccelli’s eye, evicting dissenters from the health board and strengthening their ideological headlock on the board.

This is terrible news. If there are three public officials anywhere in the region – perhaps not counting the Idaho Legislature – who are less suited to protecting the public health than Al French, Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney, you’d be hard-pressed to find them.

They spent most of the pandemic vigorously resisting public safety measures, minimizing the threat of the virus, and attempting to silence and control the public health officer, eventually firing him in a nakedly political maneuver about which they have persistently misled the public.

Now that they’ve consolidated their hold on the board – sweeping away every other public official who voted against that firing – they’ll hold even more power over what the health district does and, crucially, what the health officer is allowed to talk about in public.

Racial disparities in health? Forget about it.

Homelessness as a matter of public health? Don’t think so

Gun safety? Don’t be silly.

It’s the perfectly perverse opposite of what Ricelli’s bill was intended to produce. But the pathway to get us here was built right into that legislation.

It’s true, as Ricelli says, that the commission is violating the spirit of the law. It’s also true that this kind of cynical, power-hungry hardball from Al and the Yea-Sayers was entirely predictable.

Riccelli’s bill arose after the botched firing of Dr. Bob Lutz as the district health officer, a move that was a simple political putsch, based largely on Lutz’s making public statements the commissioners disagreed with and his support for pandemic precautions, which they opposed at every turn.

The law calls for having an equal number of elected and unelected representatives. The idea was to reduce politicization and increase the number of medical experts on health boards statewide, and it clearly envisions the idea of adding members to the board. But it left open the opposite approach – shrinking the number of elected officials in order to achieve that balance.

That’s what the commissioners did, eliminating five board representatives from the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley. This includes every member who operated as an ideological counterweight to the commission on the board, and every member who voted against Lutz’s firing.

Among the ousted is Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, whose public honesty is one important reason that we know what we know about the Lutz affair and the duplicitous machinations behind it.

This kind of chicanery was foreseeable. It’s been clear for a long time, after all, that the commission is committed to a vision of the health district as a herd of cattle whose job is to respond to the drovers’ whip.

It’s also, as Riccelli points out, a temporary change. Next year, voters will elect five commissioners instead of three, expanding the possibilities to break the current lockstep and forcing the commissioners to add even more nonpoliticians to balance out the health board.

This view of the district as an ideological body in which politicians tell doctors what to do is painted with painful clarity in the lawsuit that has been filed against the district by Lutz. The circumstances of Lutz’s firing have been well-detailed, and the consequences by those who carried it out are pending.

But Lutz’s claim against the district includes a detailed accounting of the interference he endured – from the commissioners, as well as Mayor Nadine Woodward and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich – when he tried to express his own views as the head of public health and an expert in the field.

He was told by a supervisor in 2019 that he could not address the issue of gun safety or gun violence without approval from the board, according to his claim.

He was pushed by commissioners and others relentlessly to gin up an opposition to the governor’s pandemic orders.

He was criticized by the commissioners for participating in a Black Lives Matter march in a mask, and told to stay out of politics for writing an op-ed published in The Spokesman-Review on structural racism.

The health district is now even more thoroughly politicized than before, which is bad news considering the pandemic is not over. In defending the board coup, Kerns blamed Riccelli for crafting a bill that allowed the commissioners to do this.

In a way he’s right. It was a big mistake to assume the commissioners would do the right thing.

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