SPOKANE, Wash — The chair of the Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health responded to a preliminary investigation from the Washington State Board of Health that says it found evidence that SRHD Administrator Amelia Clark may have violated state law when she ousted former health officer Dr. Bob Lutz in fall of 2020.
Board Chair and Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney has issued a statement regarding the investigation Wednesday evening. The SRHD board will not have any further response until the May 27 board meeting.
"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. He was placed on administrative leave. As is the usual operating procedure for an employee placed on administrative leave, his access was removed when the leave commenced. Dr. Lutz remained on paid administrative leave for a week prior to his termination by the SRHD Board. In order to preserve the integrity of this process and in anticipation of litigation by Dr. Lutz, the SRHD Board does not believe that any further comment at this time would be appropriate."
On October 29, Lutz met with Clark; SRHD board chair and Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick was also present at this meeting. On November 5, the SRHD board formally decided in an 8-4 vote to fire Lutz, and then unanimously appointed Dr. Frank Velazquez as acting health officer.
The central question: what was Lutz's status in between those two dates?
If Clark removed Lutz as health officer on October 29, without a public vote of the board, that could be a violation of state law, which says such a vote is required to remove a health officer.
Lutz told investigators what he had previously suggested in public statements: that Clark on no uncertain terms terminated him in that meeting.
"She discussed other things that she found fault with and said, 'You're terminated, effective immediately,'" the report says Lutz told investigators. "It took him by surprise, and he tried to respond. She said, 'Effective immediately.' She said, 'Here's a severance package' and he said that he would take it to read it. She said that it needed to be on her desk at 4:00 p.m. on Friday. She said, 'You need to leave all your office items here,' referring to his key and computer and cell phone and badges, and that he would have to contact HR to get the rest of his belongings, to get his office cleared out."
Clark recounted a very different version of events.
"Ms. Clark stated that she started going through the performance issues with Dr. Lutz, and he either would not speak or kept repeating, 'I stand by my actions,'" the report reads. "She asked Dr. Lutz to resign and to let her know by 4:00 on October 30 if he would resign. She stated that he didn't really respond. She stated that she gave him an opportunity to respond, but he was just sitting there. When asked if she said anything about terminating his position, she stated that she told him that if he didn't resign, she would go forward and request approval of termination. Ms. Clark stated that she doesn't think she said anything that would cause Dr. Lutz to believe he was terminated in the meeting."
The only other person in the room, Wick, reported something sort of in between.
"Dr. Lutz was told about his status was that his resignation was requested and that he was – Mr. Wick remembers it was a suspension, but he can't remember if that was right. Mr. Wick stated that it was a suspension or probation," the report reads.
Two other people were interviewed about that meeting: SRHD board member and Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, and Lyndia Wilson, an SRHD division director. They were interviewed because of discussions they had shortly after the October 29 meeting. Both seemed to more closely support Lutz's version of events.
"Mr. Beggs stated that he wanted to be clear what the status was – he asked and Ms. Clark said, 'he's been terminated,'" the report states.
"Ms. Wilson stated that it was her understanding that letting Dr. Lutz go was effective immediately and he was escorted out of the building," it also reads.
Furthermore, it was undisputed that following the meeting, Lutz's access to SRHD systems was revoked. Therefore, the preliminary investigation found Lutz was effectively terminated.
"After weighing the evidence, the facts set forth above support a preliminary finding that on October 29, 2020, Dr. Lutz was told by Ms. Clark that he was terminated effective immediately, and that he was given until 4:00 p.m. on October 30th to let Ms. Clark know if he wanted to convert his termination to a resignation," the report states.
The findings are only the latest development in a months-long saga that began with a tumultuous press conference in October, culminated in a public meeting in which the SRHD board fired Lutz, and continued when Spokane citizens complained to the state board of health about Clark's conduct.
The final recommendations section of the report concludes by saying:
"These facts support a preliminary finding that Ms. Clark removed Dr. Lutz as the Local Health Officer. Further, since Dr. Lutz was not given notice and an opportunity to be heard before the SRHD Board prior to his removal, the facts support a preliminary finding that Ms. Clark refused or neglected to obey or enforce RCW 70.05.050’s requirement that “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.”
The report is not a final or binding determination of any kind. What happens next is up to the state board of health, which Lutz actually sits on, though he was not a participant in the board's previous discussions or votes about this matter.
The board is scheduled to review the findings and take possible action in a virtual special meeting on May 27.