Still unknown: Why was Spokane's health officer asked to resign during a pandemic?

click to enlarge Dr. Bob Lutz has hired a lawyer to fight his termination. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
Daniel Walters photo
Dr. Bob Lutz has hired a lawyer to fight his termination.

As reporters logged into a last-minute video press conference Friday morning, everyone anxiously waited to learn exactly why the Spokane Regional Health District asked health officer Dr. Bob Lutz to resign.

Was it partisan politics, scandal or palace intrigue? It had to be something big, many figured, to fire Lutz in the middle of a pandemic.

The start of the press conference was delayed by technical issues for nearly 15 minutes, with the silence broken by intermittently unmuted mics and then a screeching feedback loop as the district's spokeswoman dealt with audio issues.

Finally, Health District administrator Amelia Clark and health board chair Ben Wick moved in front of the camera and, through their face masks, offered less than two minutes of prepared comments. They said Lutz was asked to resign Thursday after Clark spoke with the board about his employee performance during an executive session, which was closed to the public.

That was the sum of it. Then reporters started to pepper Clark with questions. Did he step down, or was he fired? Is he still an employee? Who's running the region's pandemic response in his place?

Repeatedly, Clark answered with some variation of this: "This is a personnel issue, so I cannot go into detail."

In the days since, the number of questions has only grown. As of press time Tuesday, it's still unclear whether Lutz is technically employed, whether the Spokane region even has an acting health officer, and whether and when the Board of Health will hold a public meeting and vote on whether Lutz should be fired.

RESIGNATION OR TERMINATION?
Even as Clark told all Health District staff members on Friday that Lutz no longer works there — news that was met with tears among some employees who say they were "shocked and devastated" — Lutz had not, in fact, resigned.

"To be clear, I have not resigned," Lutz says in a prepared statement on Saturday afternoon. "The manner, timing and motivation underlying the request I resign is troubling, and I have hired Mr. [Bryce] Wilcox to assist me in pursuing all available legal remedies should the SRHD Board decide to terminate my employment."

Lutz later issued a statement Monday saying Clark told him he was fired "effective immediately" on Thursday afternoon.

But confusion remains about whether Clark, the top employee at the district, has that authority, as the Board of Health bylaws state that the board has the power to hire and terminate the health officer.

Lutz says in the Monday statement that he was given until 4 pm Friday to sign a severance agreement to "resign" while waiving any claims against the district and signing a confidentiality agreement, in exchange for three months' pay. He did not sign, in part because he does not think "Clark's actions were justified or lawful."

Now, according to the district's own rules, the health board must hear from both Clark and Lutz during a public meeting if it wants to fire him.

"SRHD acknowledges that this is difficult timing for such a transition. Administrator Amelia Clark would not have sought the employment separation of Dr. Lutz during the COVID 19 pandemic if other viable options were available," the Saturday news release from the district notes. "Administrator Clark determined that the performance issues were such that they needed to be addressed immediately for the benefit of SRHD and the community."

Many have questioned if the move to push out Lutz was made illegally. However, Washington Coalition for Open Government President Toby Nixon, who sits on the Kirkland City Council, says it's possible to avoid violating the open meetings act while voicing support during an executive session for an official's plans to fire someone.

Nixon likens it to the Kirkland council's relationship with its city manager, who has the power to fire all other employees. Theoretically, if there were issues with the police chief, Nixon says, that manager might come to council in executive session to explain why they're thinking about firing the chief and to ask for feedback. Members could each voice their opinions without voting.

"It really comes down to there never being a vote, because there doesn't need to be a vote because the city manager is the one who has the authority," Nixon says. "But if the board actually has to approve the firing, that should be done in a public meeting."

That's where confusion remains with the current situation. The Health District board's bylaws state that the board has the power to hire and terminate the health officer, but apparently they felt Clark could ask for a resignation without a vote.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French, who serves on the health board, says the main concern he's heard from citizens since Friday is about transparency surrounding the decision. He says that the special health board meeting — unscheduled as of press time — will hopefully offer that clarity for people.

"People are crying for transparency right now," French says. "They will get it."

PUBLIC OUTCRY
With no details immediately given to the public about what kind of "personnel issues" led to Clark's belief that Lutz should no longer be health officer, many community groups voiced their anger over the weekend with letters, official statements and even a petition to remove Clark from her job. (As of Tuesday morning, nearly 6,000 people had signed the Change.org petition.)

Many say they've supported Lutz's actions throughout the pandemic and note his measured, science-based approach.

Some Health District staff members are concerned that undermining the official that the public has been told to trust during the pandemic could create further discord among those already questioning public health guidance.

"Dr. Lutz has been the primary SRHD guiding beacon of light and hope, especially in the epidemiological approach to COVID-19," writes epidemiologist Erin Whitehead, in a letter to the health board. "For countless individuals, Dr. Lutz is the dependable, reliable voice for meaningful, credible guidance and sound reason, and he enables a sense of stability at a very dark time."

Short of learning of some unannounced serious criminal behavior by Lutz, Whitehead writes, "we refuse to believe that anything of a 'personnel' nature warrants such an extreme reaction and measure of 'discipline' toward the highly-esteemed medical professional, currently leading our disease mitigation response for a deadly virus of epic proportion."

Some in the community wonder if politics might have been the driver. Was Lutz considering moving the county into tighter restrictions, and did that upset members of the board?

French does not comment on why Lutz was asked to leave, but says the County Commission is not pushing to move the county forward from Phase 2 of the state's reopening plan at the moment.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who also sits on the health board, issued a statement questioning who is currently serving as health officer until a board vote can take place.

While the district says a doctor who works in another program within the Health District could temporarily help with decisions and orders as needed, Beggs points out that the health board bylaws appear to state that Lutz remains health officer until the board votes to fire him.

"I share the requests of the community to have that open public meeting as soon as possible, where each can present their version of events and opinions so that the Board can restore order and credibility at the Health District," Beggs says in the statement.

City Councilwoman Karen Stratton, who also sits on the health board, notes in a statement that "no formal vote" was taken during the executive session, and says she believes in the science-based approach to the pandemic taken by Clark and Lutz so far.

"Many have been quick to assume the worst motives of the Board and, incredibly, to assume that the Board and District staff are not guided by science during this pandemic," Stratton says in her statement. "The accusations unfortunately are a sign of the times we live in. Nonetheless, this remains a personnel matter, not a political issue. I am hopeful that civility and a due regard for the truth will govern future public conversations on this matter." ♦

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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...