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Mutual Distrust Society 

by Kevin Taylor & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & H & lt;/span & ealth board members who were firing regional health director Dr. Kim Thorburn on Monday looked as stern and as sad as parents having to tell a favorite child why -- despite the kid's many fine qualities and how much she is loved -- she's going to be locked in a dark closet for the rest of her life.





We've tried to talk to you and you have just turned away, the health board told Thorburn. You leave us no choice.





Even as they were delivering this scolding on the breakdown of communication and trust between the health officer and the board, a larger breakdown has become apparent.





The health board -- primarily comprised of local elected officials -- seems to have completely lost the trust of the people. A shoulder-to-shoulder crowd mocked and hissed the board Monday and, denied the opportunity to comment, held its own impromptu "public hearing" whenever the board was out of the room in closed session.





And, perhaps more significantly, the board appears to have lost faith in residents. Board members were so unnerved by the feisty, standing-room only crowd that crammed into the basement hearing room at the county Public Works Building at noon Monday that they even called the cops.





This is a rare move at public hearings -- even more rare when the feisty crowd is comprised almost entirely of gray-haired, white-collar professionals.





Shortly after the board left the hearing room for the first of two executive sessions -- to the sound of theatrical hissing from the cheap seats -- four officers sauntered downstairs and stood discreetly in the lobby. At least one had a Taser.





Health board members Todd Mielke, a county commissioner, and Dick Denenny, a Spokane Valley city councilman, asked for the police, county information manager Martha Lou Wheatley-Billeter said later.





"After the last meeting two weeks ago [when the health board first announced it was firing Thorburn], ... well, I don't want to say people rushed the dais, but the board felt they had been accosted verbally," Wheatley-Billeter said. "The last time it got ugly and took [the board] by surprise."





Some might argue that being verbally accosted for unpopular decisions comes with the territory. The decision to fire Thorburn, who has directed the Spokane Regional Health District for a decade and is widely acclaimed as an effective champion of public health, has proven to be highly unpopular.





During the "public meeting of the public," as retired nurse Christine Clark called it Monday as she improvised, people in the audience discussed options on how to unseat health board members or, if they were elected officials, even start recall efforts at the polls.





Speaker after speaker rose to express distrust in a board that seemingly acted less in the interest of public health than in the interests of mollifying constituents. Thorburn, these speakers insisted, was being sacrificed for trying to keep politics out of public health.





"I've never seen anything come close to what this board has done to Dr. Kim Thorburn," former Spokane mayor Shari Barnard said.





Dean Lynch, a former Spokane City Councilman and former health board member, rose to say talk of recall was fine, but "we need to be very vigilant of this board's movement. Who are they going to be hiring? What are they going to do with the health building? What are they going to do for the mission of public health?"





His questions touched on oft-repeated fears that the board is out to hire a more compliant health director; that the board intends to sell the health building to appease a developer; that the board may dismantle the regional health district and make it merely a county department.





People cited a similarly ugly incident last year when Eric Skelton, the nationally acclaimed head of the Spokane County Air Pollution Control Authority (SCAPCA) resigned just ahead of an imminent firing by a hostile board (including some members who also serve on the health board). Their complaint was that SCAPCA was too tough on local businesses.





"Dr. Thorburn, another 'Skelton' in the closet?" asked one of many pointed placards that dotted the audience. Another suggested replacing Thorburn with one of County Commissioner Phil Harris' sons -- a reference to all three of Harris' grown sons finding county jobs since their dad's election.





& lt;span class= "dropcap " & "T & lt;/span & his was awkward," said health board member Mary Verner after the meeting, a Spokane City Councilwoman. "I think all the furor that arose over this issue has more to do with distrust of local government than it did with particular support for Dr. Thorburn.





"We need to restore confidence that we, as decision-makers, can make good decisions and that we are not in the hip pocket of any interest group," Verner added.





Thorburn was fired "without cause," a move that Verner said was meant to protect Thorburn's privacy, though the secrecy only fueled cynicism among the public. The vote to dismiss Thorburn was 11-0 (one board member was absent), and the unanimity was powerful.





Verner, Mielke and County Commissioner Mark Richard each took Thorburn sternly to task. Each of the three speakers mentioned they had been initially excited to work with Thorburn on a myriad of public health issues, only to have that excitement decay during instances they described as rude and confrontational behavior by Thorburn.





By the end of the nearly two-hour meeting, neither Thorburn nor the board was able to agree on which side had set up one-on-one meetings to try and save Thorburn's job. That something seemingly this simple to determine was instead bitterly disputed only served to illustrate the level of dysfunction.





And the dysfunction can't just be ignored, Verner says: "That casts us in a bad light when we go to Olympia and ask for funds." What if, Verner asked, legislators with a limited budget had to choose between a health district that was united or "one where the health officer says 'My board doesn't care about public health.'"





With Monday's firing, that issue is taken care of; but now there's the matter of the public asking, "What if my board doesn't care about public health?"

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