Report: State health board could fire top staffer at Spokane health district for firing health officer

click to enlarge Report: State health board could fire top staffer at Spokane health district for firing health officer
Daniel Walters photo
Dr. Bob Lutz, formerly Spokane's health officer.

A preliminary investigation into the October firing of Dr. Bob Lutz, who was the Spokane Regional Health District health officer, has been submitted to the Washington state Board of Health, which will now determine what happens next.

The board is set to discuss the investigation during a special meeting on May 27.

Among the steps they could take, according to the investigation, is the option to remove the district's Administrative Officer Amelia Clark, if the board finds she neglected to follow the law on removing health officers.
click to enlarge Report: State health board could fire top staffer at Spokane health district for firing health officer
Dr. Bob Lutz (top) was fired as health officer for Spokane Regional Health District Thursday, Nov. 5, after district administrator Amelia Clark (bottom) asked the health board to fire him due to issues between them as leaders of the organization. The state Board of Health could determine whether actions Clark took before that meeting broke state law.

She would then not be allowed to be reinstated by the local health board without the state board's approval, according to the report, which was sent to the state board chair in an April 29 memo. However, the board is not required to remove her even if it does find the law was broken.

The investigation was solicited by the state health board after questions were raised about how exactly Lutz was let go as health officer last fall. State law requires that the local board of health take a vote before a health officer can be fired.

On Oct. 29, 2020, Clark met with the local health board in executive session to talk about Lutz's job performance. Board members are not allowed to discuss the conversations that occur during executive sessions, but no votes are allowed to happen in those closed-door meetings either.

Following the meeting, Clark met with Lutz that afternoon, with local health board chair and Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick in attendance.

Both Lutz and Wick told investigators that Clark said something along the lines that Lutz was terminated during that meeting, and Wick escorted him out of the building, according to the investigation.

Clark, however, told investigators that she didn't recall telling Lutz he was terminated, but instead says she asked for his resignation by 4 pm the next day.

"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," the report states. "Ms. Clark stated that she doesn't think she said anything that would cause Dr. Lutz to believe he was terminated in the meeting."

However, no one disputes she immediately told him to turn over his health district computer, phone and key card, and leave his possessions in his office. Wick escorted him out.

Local health board member and current Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs was also interviewed for the investigation and reported that he got word Lutz was terminated on the evening of Oct. 29.

"Mr. Beggs stated that he can't go into details because it was an email from the attorney that he
received at 5:40 pm ," the report states. "As a result of the email, he called Ms. Clark. Mr. Beggs stated that Ms. Clark told him that she had terminated Dr. Lutz at a meeting that afternoon."

By the next morning, Oct. 30, not only had word gotten out that Lutz had been fired, but the health district held a virtual press conference at which things became, well, less clear:

Several reporters tried to determine whether Clark had actually gotten the local health board's approval to fire Lutz as required. It was unclear whether the board had taken an illegal vote in executive session (which the investigation appears to confirm did not happen) or it seemed Clark had fired Lutz without actually getting board approval first.

The investigation points out that it wasn't until Nov. 2 that Clark asked that Lutz be put on paid administrative leave, retroactive to Oct. 30.

The local health board then held a special meeting on Nov. 5, at which they did vote to fire Lutz.

Many in the community who supported Lutz, and were concerned about the potential role that political differences may have played in his firing, called on the state health board to act.

Seeing as Lutz was (and still is) a member of the state Board of Health, the group determined the best course would be to have an independent investigation done. Seattle law firm Ogden Murphy Wallace conducted the work.

The preliminary investigation's recommendations are that the state health board hold a meeting to present and discuss the findings, and then take one of a few steps:

"Request further information if the State Board of Health cannot reach a conclusion based on
the results of the preliminary investigation; or
• Close the complaint if the State Board of Health concludes that Ms. Clark did not fail to obey
or enforce the provisions of chapter 70.05 RCW; or
• If the State Board of Health determines that the preliminary investigation so warrants, call a
hearing to determine whether Ms. Clark is guilty of the alleged acts.50 The hearing will need
to be conducted pursuant to the provisions of chapter 34.05 RCW.
- If the State Board of Health finds that Ms. Clark did “refuse or neglect to obey or enforce
the provisions of chapters 70.05 … ,” then the State Board of Health may (but is not
required to) remove Ms. Clark as the SRHD Administrative Officer, in which case Ms. Clark
could not be reappointed, except with the State Board of Health’s consent.
•The State Board of Health Procedure also states that the Board can “direct the officer to remedy the failure” if it finds that the officer did “refuse or neglect to obey or enforce the provisions of chapters 70.05 …” However Ms. Clark does not have the authority to re-appoint Dr. Lutz without the approval of 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...