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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County commissioners postpone Board of Health candidate interviews

The Spokane County commissioners have postponed Board of Health candidate interviews until February. The Board of Health has four vacancies after the commissioners dissolved and reformed the board in 2021.   (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The Spokane County commissioners on Tuesday agreed to postpone Board of Health candidate interviews after a board member threatened to resign if he was left out of the process.

The Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health has four vacancies after the county commissioners voted in November to disband and reform the board.

The commissioners had to reform the board by July in order to comply with a new state law that requires boards of health to have an equal number of elected and unelected members. During the COVID-19 pandemic, elected officials without medical backgrounds have outnumbered doctors and public health experts on health boards, which set policy for health districts.

How the commissioners reorganized the board generated controversy. They removed Spokane and Spokane Valley’s dedicated seats, and shrunk the board from 12 to eight members. Keeping the board small minimized the number of unelected individuals who could have a seat at the table.

The new board includes the three county commissioners, an elected representative from one of the county’s cities – the commissioners tapped Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman for that role – a representative chosen by the American Indian Health Commission and three members representing categories outlined in the new state law:

  • Public health or medical provider representative: This person must be employed or practicing public health or medicine and could be an epidemiologist, community health worker, hospital employee, a current or retired in good standing physician, nurse, dentist, naturopath or pharmacist.
  • Consumer of public health: This person must have faced significant health inequities and used programs like the supplemental nutrition assistance program and funds for women, infant and children (SNAP, WIC), home visits or treatment services. This person cannot be an elected official or have any fiduciary obligations to a health agency or facility.
  • Community-based organization representative: a person who works for community-based organizations, nonprofits, active or reserve armed service members, business community or organizations regulated by environmental public health.

Last week, the commissioners and Freeman agreed on a list of candidates they wanted to interview for those three unfilled positions. Freeman criticized Spokane County commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French for their candidate choices, pointing out that they appeared to prefer candidates who lacked doctorate-level medical degrees or master’s degrees in public health.

On Tuesday morning, the commissioners said they wanted to interview the candidates on Friday night and Saturday.

But on Tuesday afternoon, Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney informed French and Kerns that they may have hit a snag: Freeman had told the commissioners he’d be out of town on Friday and Saturday.

“If we choose to move forward without him, then he will tender his resignation to the Board of Health,” Kuney said.

Kuney stated that the commissioners could postpone interviews until the first week of February, but doing so would mean the Board of Health would miss its January meeting.

Kerns said it was “unfortunate that Mayor Freeman would kind of put an ultimatum like that,” and said he didn’t want the board to skip its Jan. 27 meeting.

“I think it kind of sends a bad message to the community,” Kerns said. “We haven’t had a Board of Health meeting in going on two months now.”

Kerns asked Mark McClain, the commissioners’ legal counsel, if the interviews could legally take place without Freeman.

“I think you’d be fine,” McClain said.

Ultimately, the commissioners decided to delay the interviews until the first week of February.

“To move forward without Mayor Freeman’s input into the process would not only be unfortunate but leave us in a more difficult situation,” French said. “I’m happy to defer to a schedule that allows all four of us to be there.”