As Spokane County continues to see a rise in COVID-19 cases, the Spokane Regional Health District (SRHD) transitions to new leadership after the board voted to fire former Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz.
The decision was made in an 8-4 vote on Nov. 5 in a special meeting after allegations of professional misconduct were made by SRHD Administrator Amelia Clark.
Reports initially began circulating that Lutz had been let go on Oct. 30 after the SRHD issued a media release claiming Lutz had been asked to resign following a closed board meeting the day prior.
After obtaining a lawyer, Lutz revealed that his position with the SRHD was unclear to him and released a statement saying Clark had definitively fired him in the Oct. 29 meeting. Under SRHD bylaws, the appointment and termination of the health officer position is to be decided on by the collective board members, meaning Clark’s initial move to terminate Lutz would have been illegal.
Since Oct. 30, it is unclear who has been performing the health officer’s duties.
In the Nov. 5 meeting, Clark cited numerous complaints related to insubordination, misrepresentation of SRHD and unprofessional and inappropriate behavior on behalf of Lutz.
“When I joined the Health District as the leader of the agency, I had hoped that Dr. Lutz and I could work together as a team,” Clark said in the meeting. “However, his ongoing patterns of behavior have not changed despite multiple discussions.”
Among the allegations were the condemnation of Lutz’s attendance at a Black Lives Matter protest and an op-ed he co-wrote for The Spokesman-Review with Gonzaga Philosophy Professor Maria Howard. In the op-ed Lutz advocated against the reopening of Spokane Public Schools in August until proper safety benchmarks were met.
Clark also raised a complaint from an SRHD employee alleging Lutz gave her an unwelcome shoulder massage, which Lutz denied in the meeting.
Other allegations included misuse of department funds and unwillingness to follow proper departmental procedures related to the chain of command.
“It is clear to me that Dr. Lutz is unwilling to make the necessary changes to be a successful part of the Spokane Regional Health District team moving forward,” Clark said in the meeting.
In response, Lutz and his lawyer Bryce Wilcox claimed that the allegations were unrelated to Lutz’s ability to conduct his responsibilities as the district health officer and were “trivial” in some instances.
“I recognize that I can be demanding, bristly and downright curmudgeonly at times,” Lutz said in the meeting. “I do share responsibility for some of the tensions that have arisen with Ms. Clark based on our differing personalities and look forward to forging a more productive working relationship with her going forward.”
Prior to the Nov. 5 meeting, the SRHD received 3,552 pages of public comments regarding Lutz’s potential termination.
The Washington State Board of Health has since launched a preliminary investigation into Clark and Lutz and the events surrounding Lutz’s termination.
City Councilwoman Kate Burke weighed in on the situation saying she thought it was brought up seemingly randomly and handled poorly.
“When you have a problem with somebody in terms of your clashing personalities, it seems like the first step wouldn’t be to fire; the first step would be to try to mitigate and have a mediator to try and get down to the real crux of the problem,” Burke said.
Burke also expressed disappointment in politicians attempting to control the reopening of the city and said that Lutz had been receiving pressure from politicians to do so.
Lutz has played an integral role in the development of GU’s COVID-19 policies and procedures and has worked closely with the COVID-19 Action Response Team (CART).
Taylor Jordan, GU’s COVID-19 coordinator, said much of GU’s success in reopening can be attributed to Lutz’s guidance.
“Many of us at the university working in response to the COVID-19 pandemic are disheartened to hear of his dismissal,” Jordan said via email. “His guidance will be missed. However, we will continue to work with Spokane Regional Health District representatives to inform our university response to COVID-19.”
From classroom and residence hall set ups to personal protection equipment, Lutz and CART have had weekly meetings since the beginning of May to discuss how to best proceed with mitigating the spread of the virus on campus.
Charlita Shelton, who leads CART, commended Lutz’s dedication to working with higher education institutions such as GU and described him as “incredibly professional and very approachable.”
“Bob was incredibly supportive of GU ... Thayne supported him because he supported us,” Shelton said. “He wasn’t the type of director that just sat behind his desk.”
According to Shelton, CART has also been working with Senior Epidemiologist Mark Springer from the SRHD and will continue to meet with Springer moving forward.
While President Thayne McCulloh declined to comment explicitly on the situation, he tweeted his support for Lutz and called for the reconsideration of his termination.
“He has earned the respect and admiration of many of us who lead organizations within this community—having borne witness to his tireless commitment to designing solutions and providing counsel to us as we navigate the complexities of the current circumstance,” McCulloh wrote in a letter to the SRHD.
Between Saturday and Monday, Spokane saw a record-breaking 942 new cases of COVID-19. On Sunday, Gov. Jay Inslee enacted new restrictions on personal gatherings including a temporary ban on indoor dining and closed gyms for the next four weeks.
For the time being, SRHD appointed Dr. Francisco Velazquez as the interim health director, set to serve until December or when the SRHD finds a permanent replacement for Lutz.
Velazquez was the former chief executive officer of Pathology Associates Medical Laboratories (PAML) and is currently a consultant with board positions within numerous diagnostic laboratory companies.
According to Burke, a close contact of hers who was formerly employed at PAML and knows Velazquez, claims he “knows nothing about public health” raising concerns for Burke about his credentials and ability to promote safety during the pandemic.
Velazquez will serve as the interim health officer at least until Dec. 3 when the SRHD board will meet again to discuss the position.