Documents: Clark told Lutz she, health board wanted SRHD 'out of politics'

The trove of documents supporting Spokane Regional Health District Administrative Officer Amelia Clark's push to fire Dr. Bob Lutz as health officer illuminates tensions that had been building for months.

Some of the emails and documents also appear to show behind-the-scenes political pressure from members of the district's Board of Health, who didn't appreciate Lutz writing about systemic racism, attending a Black Lives Matter rally, or his encouraging gun control as it relates to reducing suicides and domestic violence.

OPINIONS NO MORE
On Aug. 23, Lutz signed onto an opinion piece in the Spokesman-Review with Maria Howard, an assistant professor of philosophy at Gonzaga who serves on the SRHD ethics committee, in which they spoke about the necessary benchmarks for reopening schools. They generally noted that at the time, the community hadn't reduced the spread of COVID-19 enough to warrant reopening schools to in-person instruction, that there was still more to learn about the spread among young students, and that those metrics needed to reopen could be met with the community working together.


"If we want to get kids back in school, it is our collective responsibility to do what is necessary to drive down the spread of COVID-19," the op-ed states. "The best way to do this is to limit our movement when we can, and to make an effort to move safely when we cannot by wearing masks and maintaining proper physical distance."

In an Aug. 24 email, Clark asks Lutz if the op-ed will have just Howard's name on it, noting that's what she had understood would be the case when they talked about it weeks prior. Lutz replies to note that the piece already ran with both their names, and when Clark says she wants to talk about it in person, Lutz asks if she hadn't seen a draft beforehand from public information officer Kelli Hawkins.

Clark says she had seen the draft, but was concerned as she had told Lutz she wanted SRHD "to be 'out of' the OpEd business."

"The board does not want SRHD sending out op eds at this time," Clark adds.


Lutz replies that he's heard nothing about that during executive committee Board of Health meetings.

"This is a significant change from the past," Lutz writes on Aug. 25. "It has never been mentioned at ECBOH meetings and is news to me."

click to enlarge Email photocopied into the record for the special Nov. 5 Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health meeting.
Email photocopied into the record for the special Nov. 5 Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health meeting.

The current executive committee includes health board chair Ben Wick (mayor of Spokane Valley), Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney, Millwood Mayor Kevin Freeman, Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, and retired school administrator Chuck Hafner, who also previously served on the Spokane Valley City Council.

The health district's administrative officer (Clark) and health officer (formerly Lutz) participate in those meetings, though they are not on the committee, according to SRHD staff.

Clark responds to Lutz's concerns to say she'd rather talk about it in person, but the Board of Health had not received his previous op-eds well.


"I feel that this is necessary to lessen the current confusion around COVID and overall keep the District out of politics," Clark writes back Aug. 25.
click to enlarge Email photocopied into the record for the special Nov. 5 Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health meeting.
Email photocopied into the record for the special Nov. 5 Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health meeting.

Lutz acknowledges in the written response to Clark's allegations, submitted by his attorney Bryce Wilcox before the special Nov. 5 health board meeting, that he was told by Wick and Kuney that they did not like an op-ed he wrote for the Spokesman in early August about systemic racism. In that piece, he acknowledged public health's historic role in racist practices, how COVID-19 further highlighted inequities for Black and Brown Americans, and called for dismantling structural racism.

"Specifically, Mayor Wick and Commissioner Kuney asked why this was written
rather than a more timely topic, such as education," Lutz states in his response letter. "I note that the topic had been discussed previously and approved by Ms. Clark and was not submitted for publication until it was approved."

The next op-ed, on education, is the one Clark emailed him about to say he should stop writing opinion pieces altogether.

HUMAN RESOURCES/PERFORMANCE REVIEW
The documents highlight details of a slew of other issues Clark raised to the board before its vote to fire Lutz.

However, Clark's exhibits provide no further detail on a human resources complaint she cited, noting that on Nov. 26, 2018 (before Clark was hired), Lutz was counseled that a female employee had complained that Lutz gave her an unwanted neck massage and put his knee behind hers. The employee also complained that Lutz grabbed employee nametags, wherever they were on a person's body.

There was no formal investigation of the issue, Lutz's response letter states, and Lutz differently recalled touching the seated employee on the forearm during a discussion where he knelt down to be more at her level, and denied giving her a massage.

"I was told by HR and the Interim AO I had been accused by an individual of touching her on
her shoulder and grabbing name badges," Lutz writes in his reply. "I had kneeled next to her rather than standing over her, and as was a practice I sometimes used when talking with patients in clinics, placed my hand on the forearm (or took their hands)."

Lutz writes that there was no accusation he massaged her at the time. He did admit at the time that when meeting new employees, he would often take a look at their name tag on their lanyard, unless it was near their chest or collar.

Another issue on the long list of reasons to fire Lutz that Clark provided was a note from his performance review in 2018, when it was noted that he sometimes goes directly to staff without checking with managers first, which can make it hard for people to know who to answer to. His supervisor at the time, who planned to retire, noted they wanted to talk with Lutz and other managers about that before they left.

However, what Clark didn't note is that the full performance review generally praises Lutz, marking him as "achieves" or "exceptional" in all job duty categories. In the category where a manager would note needing to improve on any disciplinary actions, "not applicable" was selected.

An unsigned letter from a long-time, high-level administrative support employee is also included in the documentation. The employee describes at length how they felt Lutz became health officer with conflicts of interest in play, as he was close with the previous administrator and helped design the evaluation procedure for the health officer when he was previously on the health board.

The employee writes about their own issues with Lutz, and those of other staff members who disagreed with him or pointed out when he was not following proper procedure, noting that he stopped speaking directly with those employees at times. The employee outlines times when they tried to direct Lutz's letters or decisions to the attention of the administrator and received backlash from Lutz, who felt micromanaged. 

GUN CONTROL
It's also clear from the documentation that Lutz butted heads with Clark, health district staff, and some members of the health board over the years for his stance on gun control, specifically as it relates to his efforts on suicide prevention.

Clark's notes state that in October, Lutz "directly contacted local officials despite being counselled — on three separate occasions — not to contact legislators and board members in his capacity as Health Officer regarding SRHD operations without first consulting administrator."

On Oct. 12, Lutz emailed a link to an academic article on gun access and its role in gun deaths in the home to state Sen. Andy Billig and Rep. Marcus Riccelli, who represent Spokane.

The article's findings note, "In this state-level, cross-sectional study throughout the United States, negligence-specific child access prevention firearm laws were associated with a 13% reduction in all-intent firearm fatalities, a 15% reduction in firearm homicides, a 12% reduction in firearm suicides, and a 13% reduction in unintentional firearm fatalities among children aged 0 to 14 years. Absence of the most stringent negligence laws accounted for 29% of pediatric firearm fatalities."

Lutz did not quote from the article in his email to the lawmakers, but stated, "While not a surprise any laws around firearms would be seen as controversial, common sense public health measures have an impact."

Billig replies on Oct. 17, "Thank you for forwarding this!" and Lutz responds on Oct. 18 to ask, "Any opportunities?"

Billig writes back to say that Initiative 1639, passed by Washington voters in 2018, provides some safe storage requirements.

"We could potentially go further in this area but the initiative route has proven to be much more successful than the Legislature in meaningful gun safety efforts," Billig writes on Oct. 18. "However, if our majority grows we might have more opportunities."

Lutz asks Billig if he'd consider having a Health Impact Review conducted, which would provide nonpartisan, evidence-based information on potential legislation.

"This could provide appropriate data to demonstrate the positive impacts on youth, especially given the lack of dedicated funding to support the state's suicide prevention plan..." Lutz writes.

Billig writes that he will check to see if one isn't already being done, and Lutz says it might put some teeth into existing rules meant to deter violence.



BLACK LIVES MATTER

Another issue that was evidently a problem for Clark and multiple board members was Lutz's attendance at a Black Lives Matter rally on May 31 following the horrific death of George Floyd as a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes in Minneapolis.

While acknowledging Lutz has a right to participate in protests, Clark's notes state that she received multiple complaints from citizens that while they were staying home, Lutz was defying the governor's stay-home orders.

"It is inconsistent to ask the community to adhere to the Governor's Stay Home Order when you do not set an appropriate example," Clark states. "If the Health Officer does not follow the stay home order, the district loses credibility with the public."

Health board member and Spokane County Commissioner Al French also cited Lutz's attendance at the rally as tarnishing the district's reputation.

"The one thing you cannot unwind is the credibility and the integrity of the agency when our health officer is violating the governor’s order with regard to stay home," French said during the special Nov. 5 health board meeting, before joining in the 8-4 vote to terminate Lutz.

The documentation provided to the health board shows complaints received by the district and the county commission from three people.

In his response letter, Lutz notes that attending the BLM rally was important for multiple reasons, "not least of which racism is a public health issue."

"I accepted criticism provided by some community members for my participation and the apparent contradiction, noting the participation of many notable community leaders at the event itself, to include state and local elected officials," Lutz writes. "As I stated at the time, my wife and I wore face coverings, attempted to distance ourselves from the masses by standing along the edge of the protest at Spokane Falls Boulevard, held back to the rear of the march and/or did not follow the main group, and left the event early."

Lutz also quotes Washington Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman, who wrote around that time, "While more recently, we have taken intentional action to address the root causes of health inequities, including structural racism and other forms of oppression, there is still a lot of work to do. Public health must continue to respond and lead with racial equity and social justice. Racism is a public health threat that can’t be ignored. And leading with racial equity and social justice requires us to prioritize the health and well-being of historically marginalized and oppressed communities — including Black, Indigenous and People of Color, individuals with disabilities and the LGBTQ+ community, to name a few."

Northwest Winterfest @ Mirabeau Park Hotel

Through Jan. 2, 2021
  • or

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...