Despite their own attorney's words, Spokane health board doubles down to say Clark didn't fire Lutz

The Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health held a special meeting this week so they could vote to respond to an Inlander story published online last week, quoting an email from board attorney Michelle Fossum.

The email we wrote about was important because it showed that Fossum directly told all board members on the evening of Oct. 29, 2020, that health district administrator Amelia Clark had terminated Dr. Bob Lutz, who was the district's health officer at the time.

Clark doesn't have the authority to fire Lutz. Instead, the health board had to hold a public meeting for Clark and Lutz to present the facts, and then take a vote. That meeting did ultimately happen on Nov. 5, when the board voted 8-4 to terminate Lutz.

But Lutz and the community were under the impression he was fired on Oct. 29, so much so that a state Board of Health investigation was sparked over the whole incident.

Why would people think that? Here's a reminder of a few key moments:
  • Clark emailed all health district employees at 7:47 am on Friday, Oct. 30, to tell them "Yesterday, October 29 was Bob Lutz's last day at the Health District."
  • At 9:53 am Oct. 30, the health district sent out a press release noting the district had asked Lutz to resign, but in their 11 am press conference, Clark would not clarify to journalists whether Lutz was fired, on advice of counsel. She did say "Dr. Lutz is no longer the health officer at the health district," noting that was effective as of "yesterday" Oct. 29.
  • City Council President Breean Beggs, a member of the local health board, sent a public statement Oct. 30 stating in part, "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."
  • Not only did Beggs tell a state investigator about the 5:40 pm Oct. 29 email that the Inlander has now shared with the public (the investigator's preliminary findings were written up on April 29, 2021), but he also told the investigator that after receiving that email, he called Clark and said she told him she'd terminated Lutz.
But in a statement released today, Aug. 6, rather than dispute whether Fossum actually did tell the board that Clark fired Lutz, or claim she somehow got the facts wrong that evening, the health board's opening statement focuses on how the Inlander could've gotten the email, which had the subject line "Attorney Client Privilege."

"On July 30, 2021, the Pacific Northwest Inlander (Inlander) published an email that was protected under attorney client privilege. It remains under investigation how the Inlander obtained that email as there was no inadvertent disclosure made to the Inlander in its public records requests."

The majority of health board members agreed to draft the response to us during a special meeting on Aug. 4.

But notably, Beggs asked that his name not be included on the statement, which was ultimately sent as "on behalf of the Spokane Regional Board of Health" with no signatures.

"I would ask that when that letter's drafted it not include me or attribute me to that statement. I've already testified on the record what I witnessed in terms of my communications directly after the meeting with Amelia Clark and Bob Lutz," Beggs said during the Aug. 4 meeting. "My sense is the testimony that I've already provided is probably going to be contradictory to the letter, and I don't want to get in the way of the board doing it, but I just don't want to send inconsistent messages for the testimony that I've already given."

Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson abstained from the board vote to draft a response to our article.

The board's statement claims that release of the attorney email "adds to the public's confusion" around what happened on Oct. 29.

But the statement in the email, if anything, appears to clarify what happened. "Please be advised that Amelia has terminated Dr. Lutz's employment" Fossum wrote to the health board.

Today's board statement points out that Clark's own statements to the state investigator hired by the state Board of Health were that she asked Lutz to resign.

The statement did not, however, acknowledge that the same state investigator's overall preliminary findings stated, "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.'"

Instead, the board reiterates a timeline of events where Lutz was merely asked to resign, and only fired by the board on Nov. 5, per state law. The rest of the board's statement follows:

"The Spokane Regional Board of Health (BOH) does not agree with statements made by various individuals who have alleged Administrative Officer Dr. Amelia Clark terminated Dr. Bob Lutz in violation of Washington State law. Dr. Lutz was terminated by the BOH in an open public meeting on November 5, 2020, as required by law. The disclosed email adds to the public’s confusion surrounding the October 29th meeting between Dr. Clark, Dr. Lutz, and then BOH Chair Ben Wick. However, as they were the only individuals present at that meeting, they are the only ones who can speak directly to what was said at that meeting.

As that email has now been released, the BOH finds that it is necessary to re-state what transpired at the Thursday, October 29, 2020, meeting between Dr. Lutz, Dr. Clark, and Mr. Wick.

As reported by the Washington State Board of Health’s preliminary investigation, Dr. Clark stated that in her meeting with Mr. Wick and Dr. Lutz on Oct. 29, she asked Dr. Lutz to resign. She further stated that if he didn’t resign, she would go forward and request approval of termination from the BOH.

In addition to Dr Clark’s statements that Dr Lutz was asked to resign on October 29, Mr. Wick shared his recollection, “After a continued discussion with Dr. Lutz on his performance, Dr. Clark advised Dr. Lutz that she was moving forward with his termination and offered him [Lutz] the opportunity to provide his resignation in lieu of termination. The resignation offer included a severance package and a mutual non-disclosure agreement if agreed to before 4 pm on Friday Oct 30. Similar to any employment suspension, Dr Lutz’s badge, phone, keys, and SRHD computer access was requested and frozen.”

The BOH would like to point out that statements from all three have been consistent; Dr. Lutz was not terminated at that meeting. Dr. Lutz’s public statement dated October 31, 2020, makes it very clear he understood he was not terminated by Dr. Clark on October 29, 2020:

An excerpt of Dr. Lutz’s statement (as reported in the Spokesman-Review on 10/31/2020):

“To be clear, I have not resigned. I maintain a strong desire to continue working to promote the health and safety of the citizens of Spokane County and this region. The manner, timing, and motivation underlying the request I resign is troubling, and I have hired Mr. Wilcox to assist me in pursuing all available legal remedies should the SRHD’s Board decide to terminate my employment.”

It is clear from Dr. Lutz himself, Dr. Clark, and Mr. Wick, who have the same recollection, he was not terminated on Thursday, October 29. Dr. Clark followed proper procedure and requested a hearing before the BOH for the Board to consider Dr. Lutz’s termination. Dr. Lutz was terminated by the BOH for cause on November 5, 2020, in full accordance with Washington State law.

No further authorized statements or interviews regarding this issue will be made by board members or the administrative officer until the legal proceeding at the Washington State Board of Health Hearing is complete."

At the Nov. 5 hearing at which Lutz was ultimately fired by the board, his attorney noted that Lutz had only been given a list of reasons why Clark had fired him 48 hours before the Nov. 5 special board meeting. His attorney also said that if Lutz's termination wasn't "reversed" by the board that night, that the public health district's mission would be in jeopardy, as would public health and safety during the ongoing pandemic. 

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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...