Email: Lawyer told Spokane Board of Health that Clark fired health officer full week before board vote

click to enlarge Email: Lawyer told Spokane Board of Health that Clark fired health officer full week before board vote
Daniel Walters photo
Former Spokane Regional Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz.

For months, concerned citizens and the state Board of Health have looked into the question of whether Spokane Regional Health District Administrator Amelia Clark improperly fired health officer Dr. Bob Lutz in a conversation on Oct. 29, 2020.

As administrator, Clark could ask the local board of health to fire Lutz, but that had to take place during a public meeting with a public vote, which didn't happen until a week later.

But an email obtained by the Inlander from SRHD Board of Health attorney Michelle Fossum to health board members confirms that at 5:40 pm on Oct. 29, Fossum told the board "Please be advised that Amelia has terminated Dr. Lutz's employment. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to her or to me, but do not 'reply all' to this email."

In the days and months since that email was sent, board members and the health district have worked to deny that Clark improperly fired Lutz before a board vote could take place. On Nov. 5, the board voted 8-4 to fire Lutz.

Fossum sent the state Board of Health a letter around that time, in which she said "Administrator Clark did meet with Dr. Lutz on Thursday, October 29. She gave Dr. Lutz until Friday, October 30 at 4:00 to resign or she would seek his termination. She did take SRHD property from him. Because Dr. Lutz did not resign, he was placed on paid administrative leave pending meeting and decision of the SRHD Board of Health."

Fossum did not immediately respond to phone messages seeking comment on Thursday afternoon.

SRHD has not made Clark available for interviews on the subject since October, citing potential litigation.

Complaints about the incident sparked a state Board of Health investigation, which is set to go before an administrative law judge at a hearing, possibly later this year, where Clark will have a chance to comment. The state board can then determine whether disciplinary action against Clark is warranted.

Clark has maintained she put Dr. Lutz on paid administrative leave Oct. 30; however, a state investigator pointed out that move was made retroactively on Nov. 2, only after community backlash.

"Ms. Clark states she put him on paid leave Oct. 30. The thing is, though, there isn’t any evidence other than her saying so to support that," report author Karen Sutherland told the state health board in July. "Making it retroactive didn't somehow unfire him."

Despite receiving the email from Fossum stating plainly that Lutz had been fired, SRHD board of health members have continued to dispute that, claiming that Clark didn't fire Lutz when she met with him on Oct. 29.

SRHD health board member Kevin Freeman, who represents small-city mayors, told the Inlander earlier this summer that Clark did not fire Lutz.

"I would say to you that she did not. There was a statement released by the health district. That statement was inaccurate. Fully inaccurate," Freeman said. "I was not present, but it was my understanding that Dr. Lutz was not fired … It was my understanding that he was not terminated."

Freeman had apologized to the public in a Nov. 1 open letter about the "muddled communications" in the days immediately after Oct. 29, "including a press conference that answered no questions regarding the request for Dr. Lutz's resignation and subsequence (sic) announced termination."

In an Oct. 30 reply to Fossum's Oct. 29 email, also obtained by the Inlander, Freeman wrote "Did Amelia TERMINATE Bob, or was it something else?" It's not clear if Fossum replied.

In the state board investigation, then-SRHD board chair Ben Wick, Spokane Valley mayor, told the investigator that Lutz wasn't the health officer in the intervening week, but was "under a suspension or something similar" during the week from Oct. 29 to Nov. 5.

Within five minutes of SRHD sending out a press release on Oct. 30 improperly stating that the SRHD board asked Lutz to resign, Wick sent Clark an email saying, "Give me a call when you get a chance."

The "muddled" press conference happened later that morning, when Clark would not tell reporters whether Lutz was fired or resigned.

Current SRHD health board chair Mary Kuney, a Spokane County commissioner, sent out a public statement on May 12 stating, "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."

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About The Author

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...