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Spokane City Council member Betsy Wilkerson asks for more transparency from SRHD

Spokane City Council member Betsy Wilkerson released a statement Saturday calling Lutz's firing an "unjust and grossly inappropriate public termination."

SPOKANE, Wash. — Leaders in local government and community members are still searching for answers from the Spokane Regional Health District after health officer Dr. Bob Lutz was asked to step down from his position. 

Lutz issued a statement on Monday saying he was fired last Thursday and offered a severance package, which he did not accept. A public meeting where the health board will vote on whether or not to terminate Dr. Lutz hasn't been scheduled yet. 

Spokane Regional Health District Administrator Amelia Clark met with Lutz and asked him to resign from his position on Thursday, Oct. 29, citing "performance issues," according to a health district spokesperson. Clark said she brought forth concerns about Lutz during an executive session of the board on that same day.

Lutz was officially fired during a public meeting on Nov. 4 after an 8-4 vote. 

Spokane City Council member Betsy Wilkerson released a statement Saturday calling the move an "unjust and grossly inappropriate public termination." 

She went on to write:

"The lack of transparency and communication whether it be the amount of timely information or the communication between the board appointed Health Administrator and the Board over personnel concerns is unacceptable. The unprofessional behavior on display during the Board of Directors meeting on November 5th was troubling as someone who runs a business and has chaired numerous boards, I have never seen such lack of respect for process, opposing view-points or for differences of opinion.

To be specific, these are points of contention that puzzled me:

  • When asked for, a strong pattern of behavior meriting dismissal was not presented.
  •  “Concern” over Dr. Lutz’s
    • collaboration with elected officials addressing mental health issues relating to gun violence.
    • refusal to move us to Phase III.
    • attendance at a Black Lives Matter protest.
    • penning op-eds.
  • No adequate documentation or body of evidence for accusations against Dr. Lutz.
  • Timing of the request for resignation, literally a day after Dr. Lutz and SRHD receive the Sister Peter Claver Humanitarian Award.
  • Moving target of what the board was supposed to do concerning remedies
  • A packet of documents was given to the board with literally hours to decide.
  • Although a performance improvement plan was drawn up, it was deemed costly and was not even offered to Dr. Lutz.

SRHD listed many reasons that ranged from political motivation to uncertainty that would occur in the absence of Dr. Lutz’s measured and experienced leadership. I understand that organizations have internal protocols, process and chains of command, and that is not the question, yet I question the timing of events and the lines of official work performance versus personal disagreement appeared to be blurred.

I was out of town when the Board of Health meeting on the 29th of October was held and the phone calls that I received after the subsequent press conference were troubling. People were telling me that they felt lost and blindsided, as a Board of Health member I was not told anything in advance. I was not briefed about the ongoing “personnel” situation in the ten months that I have been on it. Again, I am puzzled and feel it was deliberate to keep board members in the dark, and I hope to that was not the intent.

Going forward I join the public in requiring the Administrator, the Health Officer, and the Executive Leadership to be open and transparent. I commit to join the effort in rebuilding the relationship with the public and their Regional Health District."

The Washington State Nurses Association and PROTEC17 released a statement calling for transparency behind SRHD's decision to ask Dr. Lutz to resign. The two unions represent a "vast majority" of the workers employed by the health district, according to the statement. 

The unions are urging the health district to reconsider asking for Lutz's resignation ahead of an anticipated surge in COVID-19 cases: 

"We do not understand the Board’s decision to ask for Dr. Lutz’s resignation and feel transparency for this significant decision is of utmost importance. We are calling for a public meeting where we can all hear the facts supporting this shocking action so that we can better understand why this happened and determine for ourselves whether the action was warranted.

We need a unified leadership team at SRHD, especially going into the winter months when the COVID-19 crisis is expected to become much worse. Dr. Lutz greatly contributes to that unified team, and we stand behind his excellent leadership. We urge the Spokane Regional Health District Administrator, Amelia Clark, and the Board of Health to reconsider their decision, and carefully evaluate the far-reaching repercussions of forcing Dr. Lutz out of his position. Public health staff need strong leadership right now, and we firmly believe we have that in Dr. Lutz. "

The Washington Academy of Family Physicians also released a statement, saying they are alarmed by the recent "actions of administrative leadership" to remove Dr. Lutz from his position. 

"The Washington Academy of Family Physicians is alarmed by recent actions of the administrative leadership of the Spokane Regional Health District to move to terminate the employment of Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz. Removing a long-standing and capable health officer amid an ongoing pandemic risks hastening the already devastating effects of COVID-19.

As the largest medical specialty society in Washington, WAFP represents family medicine — the action arm of public health. Public health leaders across the country and at all levels of government are under threat because of the stresses posed by this pandemic. WAFP sympathizes with the many Washingtonians who face extraordinary financial burdens caused by COVID-19, family physicians and other medical staff among them.

WAFP unconditionally supports a robust statewide public health system with continuous leadership from qualified public health officials using science- and evidence-based interventions to combat this pandemic. The most direct route to a full economic recovery will be achieved by eliminating the spread of infection. Undermining the efforts of leading public health officials will serve only to prolong the pandemic and delay a full societal recovery."

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who serves on the county's Board of Health, issued a statement on Monday citing several Washington state laws. 

RELATED: Who is on the Spokane Board of Health and how did they get there?

“I am grateful that the Spokane Regional Health District issued a statement on Saturday correcting the inaccurate information from its Friday media release and press conference. Despite several requests, the District has still not clarified who is currently acting as Spokane’s Local Health Officer," Beggs wrote in the statement. 

The statement continues as follows:

Pursuant to RCW 70.05.050: “...the 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.” Spokane’s by-laws provide that the local health officer may only be appointed or removed by formal action by the Board of Health. Many read that to mean that Dr. Lutz remains employed by the SRHD as Spokane’s Local Health Officer, and if so, I hope that he will continue acting as the Health Officer until such time as the Board considers and makes a formal decision on the issue of removal.

RCW 70.05.120 sets out serious consequences for any violation of the law set out above. See a copy of those consequences pasted in below. Spokane’s Board of Health needs to investigate and remedy any potential violations of state law that interfered with our local health officer’s performance of his duties over the past few days and in the future until there is official board action on the issue of removal.

The Board of Health appears to be the exclusive appointing and removal authority for both the Health Administrator and the Health Officer. A few years ago, the Board changed its governance to have the Health Officer take direction from and report to the Health Administrator. If they disagree with each other on either’s performance that would undermine the District or public health, the Board is the final authority. I share the requests of the community to have that open public meeting as soon as possible, where each can present their version of events and opinions so that the Board can restore order and credibility at the Health District.

In the future I believe it will be helpful if the Board creates a more specific description of the lanes of independent authority for both the Health Administrator and the Health Officer, as well as an alternative method of dispute resolution if they see things differently from each other.

RELATED: Dr. Lutz plans to pursue all 'legal remedies' if Spokane health board votes to terminate

'Not a political issue,' says Councilmember Stratton

Spokane City Council Members Karen Stratton and Betsy Wilkerson also provided statements expressing their concerns on Monday. 

“I was not at the board meeting, but like others in the community I share a number of concerns. I look forward to a public conversation and answers to all of our questions," Wilkerson wrote.

Stratton's statement is as follows:

“There has been considerable public discussion regarding recent events at the Spokane Regional Health District, and more particularly about its governing board and Dr. Bob Lutz. First, as was announced at the onset of Thursday’s board meeting, the Board of Health met in executive session to discuss a personnel matter.  As a member of the board, I can confirm that no formal vote was taken on any matter. In fact, any vote would have violated state law, as the board was in executive session, and formal actions or votes are not permitted in executive session under the Open Meetings Act.

More important, the Health Board has consistently and for many months strongly supported the Health District’s focus on science-based measures to combat the pandemic.  I am proud of the Board’s and staff’s efforts during this difficult time. Like them, I believe in the science-based approach led by Administrator Amelia Clark and Dr. Bob Lutz.  I believe in masks, social distancing and handwashing, and my views are typical of most members of the Board.

It has been disappointing to observe the groundswell of reckless accusations and conspiracy theories regarding the Board of Health and the District staff.  Many have been quick to assume the worst motives of the Board and, incredibly, to assume that the Board and District staff are not guided by science during this pandemic. The accusations unfortunately are a sign of the times we live in. Nonetheless, this remains a personnel matter, not a political issue. I am hopeful that civility and a due regard for the truth will govern future public conversations on this matter.”

Businesses and community members demand transparency

On Monday, 156 organizations, businesses and faith communities and 583 community members in Spokane County also signed letters demanding transparency from the health district. 

"We stand together to demand transparency around the sudden termination of Dr. Lutz. We want a clear, detailed plan of how Spokane Regional Health District will continue to address COVID-19 and other public health matters," the letter from local organizations reads in part. 

Read the full letter below:

Mayor Woodward issues statement

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward released a statement on Friday afternoon, saying that Lutz faced "an extremely tough challenge" in leading the county through the pandemic.

Woodward's statement reads in full:

“Dr. Lutz has faced an extremely tough challenge over an extended time and gave everything he had to the community. Spokane and the state were the first to take the national stage in February. We have been learning about the virus as we go and those long months since have left our region anxious, tired, and frustrated that we are not progressing as fast as everyone had hoped. This is a community health and economic emergency and it takes partnership and community to solve it; we will rally together as Spokane always does. Please continue to put your loved ones, friends, neighbors, and colleagues first as you remain resilient and practice good mask etiquette and hand hygiene.”

Beggs issues statement on Friday

Beggs previously released a statement Friday night, saying the news was unexpected.

The statement reads:

“Yesterday evening I received the unexpected news that the Spokane County Public Health Officer had been terminated from his position at the Spokane County Health District.

The Spokane County Health District By-Laws provide at Article IV, Section 3 that: “The Board of Health shall approve the appointment and termination of a District Health Officer.” (emphasis added.) To my knowledge, the Spokane County Health District Board has not taken any action to approve the termination of Dr. Lutz. In order to do so, the Board would have to vote at a meeting that was properly noticed and open to the public, subject to the Governor’s orders on open public meetings.

Much of what I know about this situation was derived from an executive session meeting of the Board yesterday, and by law, I am not authorized to reveal that information absent a waiver of confidentiality. I look forward to the required public board meeting when I can address the merits of the situation as I see it from my perspective and on behalf of the City of Spokane which I represent on the Health Board.

I have greatly appreciated the leadership and the work of the entire staff of the Health District, including Dr. Lutz, in supporting Spokane through this pandemic. We would be in a much worse situation without their work, and I understand the deep community concern at this turn of events. I join those requesting prompt answers to how the District will fill the duties of those unique tasks granted only to an authorized local public health officer.

My request to the public is that they presume the same good intentions I do of all those working at the Health District. I commit to following our by-laws and the Open Public Meetings Act and working hard to restore confidence in the organization.”

Pandemic presents 'unique times' for county, Commissioner French says

Spokane County District 3 Commissioner Al French, who is on the Spokane County Board of Health, spoke with KREM's Mark Hanrahan on Friday morning after the news broke, saying that the pandemic presents "unique times" for the county.

"You know, there's a lot of opinions around the timing of this, and there's a lot of angst in the community about why [the county] hasn't moved further, why have we not moved faster. There are a lot of families that are struggling. You know, until, at the national level, we get some kind of stimulus package and stuff... there's a lot of folks that are really hurting," French said. "We just, as the Board of County Commissioners, we just have the food bank, another $2.5 million to address found sustainability. We're doing things for rent assistance. This is unique times, so we're doing what we can to help those in our community, especially those that are struggling the most."

Watch French's full interview below, or by clicking here:

WSU College of Health and Sciences releases statement

The Washington State University College of Health and Sciences in Spokane also released a statement on Twitter Saturday about Dr. Lutz's departure. 

Today, we are writing to express our strongest support for Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz, whose leadership is well known to us at WSU. Dr. Lutz has not only provided steady leadership during an impossibly difficult time as we navigate a global pandemic, he is a well-known and greatly appreciated faculty member in the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. WSU has relied upon his expertise through his involvement with REDI throughout Eastern Washington, including as we develop our testing strategies and work to support Whitman County to address access to healthcare shortages. He has worked diligently and effectively to offer counsel and support throughout a broad region incorporating many challenging healthcare environments. He has been a steadfast partner. 

We want to express our support for Dr. Lutz as a public health leader and for all the public health leaders who are on the front line during this pandemic. We cannot speak highly enough regarding his contributions in the most difficult of circumstances for so many of our communities. 

Gonzaga President hopes decision could be reconsidered

Gonzaga University President Thayne McCulloh released a statement on Twitter saying that he hoped the decision could be reconsidered.

"I am personally very concerned by the reported ouster of the Director of @spokanehealth, Dr. Bob Lutz.  In the face of this pandemic he has worked tirelessly & been a wise, effective guide to us in @spokanecounty & @GonzagaU.  It is my hope that this decision can be reconsidered."

State representative calls on health board members to reveal stance

Marcus Riccelli (D), the State Representative for Washington's 3rd Legislative District, which covers much of the city of Spokane, released a statement on Twitter on Friday afternoon calling on the individual members of the board to reveal their stance on the decision.

"Every single health board member needs to say where they stand on this decision. I am doubting the communication during the press conference of full support of the board - that implies unanimous. I think that is misinformation," Riccelli said.

A group of 17 superintendents of school districts in Spokane County signed the following statement showing appreciation for Lutz's work during the pandemic:

"As superintendents of the public school districts in Spokane County, we have each sincerely appreciated the thoughtful guidance and generous time Dr. Bob Lutz (and others on the Spokane Regional Health District team) has provided us throughout the ongoing pandemic. 

Decisions that have been made have not been easy or uncomplicated, for any of us nor for Dr. Lutz and other public health professionals. Yet, he has leaned in with us and collaborated as we have strived to make the best decisions possible for our students and district communities, and for the larger regional community we share."

The Spokane County Democrats released a statement on their official Facebook page, calling the board's decision to ask for his departure "unconscionable."

The beginning of the statement is replicated below. The full statement can be read at the Facebook link posted below the following quote, or by clicking here.

"The Spokane County Democrats remain united in our support of science. Dr. Lutz has been a strong advocate in keeping our community safe, offering critical guidance at a time when our residents’ health and safety are threatened. 

The decision by the Spokane Regional Health District Board to force out Spokane County’s health officer amid a pandemic is unconscionable. Just yesterday, Spokane reported four additional COVID-19 related deaths and crossed over the barrier of 200 total deaths since the start of the pandemic. The district confirmed 112 new cases yesterday. In what universe is eliminating the public health officer from the county the  appropriate response to surging cases and continued deaths?"

Washington State Medical Association 'severely troubled' by Lutz reports

The Washington State Medical Association released a statement Friday night about the situation, saying it was "severely troubled" by reports of Lutz being forced to resign. The statement reads in full:

"The Washington State Medical Association is severely troubled by the recent reports from Spokane about the forced resignation of the Spokane Regional public health officer, Dr. Bob Lutz.

Dr. Lutz's departure during a time of public health state of emergency is extremely concerning and has become and unfortunate pattern in numerous states, where county public health officers are being asked to resign due to a difference of political opinion rather than following evidence based medicine and science. Public county health officers around the country have been on the frontlines of the worst pandemic in recent history, and have come under intense political and sometimes personal pressure and attacks.

What's being reported as Dr. Lutz's forced resignation is a reminder that too often, politics often overrides science in our policymaking. Public health officers are public servants who seek to do what their job description states - to protect public health. They use science and medical expertise to make their decisions. The WSMA wants to commend public health officers around the state for the work they do every day to keep their communities safe."

"We are deeply sympathetic to the frustrations we all feel due to COVID-19. It has not only wreaked havoc on our daily routines, it has crippled thousands of Washingtonians' ability to make ends meet and has disrupted our personal lives," Dr. Nathan Schlicher, president of the WSMA and lawyer, is quoted as saying. "But the only way to combat this virus is to listen to what science tells us and to continue to follow the guidance of those who have the expertise to best protect public health."

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