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Spokane County commissioners cut number of elected officials on Board of Health in half

Rebecca White/SPR

Spokane County Commissioners voted Monday to transform the Spokane Regional Health Board, cutting the number of local elected officials by more than half.

After several controversial rule changes, the firing of the Spokane Regional Health District officer, and contention on local health boards, the Washington State Legislature approved a bill requiring local health districts’ leadership to be half-non-elected officials. It was signed by the governor this spring, and was set to go into effect next summer.

Spokane County Commissioners finalized, and adopted a plan to comply with that law Monday afternoon. The commissioners voted to dissolve, and reconstitute the Board of Health with four elected officials and four community members. The elected officials will be the three county commissioners, Josh Kerns, Mary Kuney and Al French, and the city representative will be the mayor of Millwood, Kevin Freeman. Five current elected official board members including the city council representatives from Spokane and Spokane Valley, which represent the majority of the county’s population, will no longer have seats on the board.

During the meeting Monday, Kerns said adopting a plan now is best for the district, saying if the commissioners waited until next summer to reconstitute the health board, it would make finalizing the fiscal year difficult.

“Quite frankly I think it makes sense for us to do this, and have the new board in place for next year,” Kerns said. “The way the legislation is written, we have the drop-dead date of July, which quite frankly is right in the middle of the budget cycle at the health district. Again, another aspect in this whole debate that I don't think was really thought out very much."

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said he believed keeping Freeman on the board, who was chosen to chair the body next year, and the commissioners as members, fit the spirit of the legislation.

“It seems to me there is some logic to keeping the two chairs,” French said, “current and future on the board, that would be another elected, plus the three of us would get us to four, and the three at large, the tribal representative, which is still less than what we have now, but would certainly meet the intent of the legislation.”

The Spokane County Commissioners did not respond to requests for comment. In a press release Tuesday, Commissioners said they were proactively seeking applicants.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said the decision to remove city elected officials from the board was unfortunate, saying they added a needed perspective to regional health decisions.

"Well, the city of Spokane has the largest population in the county and over the years we have contributed substantially to the leadership of the health district board,” Beggs said, “so removing city of Spokane representation from that is troubling."

The current board will dissolve Dec. 31 and the new board will take charge in January. The county will soon start recruiting for the three community representatives. Those three people will be chosen by the commissioners, and must be from the healthcare community, or a recipient of healthcare or government services like the Women, Infant Children Program, a nutrition program commonly known as WIC.

The only member of the board the commissioners will not have the power to choose is a state-mandated Native American representative, who is chosen by the American Indian Health Commission.

The rules of how the commissioners must interview candidates, and evaluate them have not yet been finalized by the state. The Washington State Board of Health is taking public comment on that issue until Friday.

This story was modified on November 16 to include information from a county press release and audio from the meeting.

Audio of the Spokane County Commissioners Discussion on reconstituting the Spokane Regional Board of Health.

The full resolution is available here:

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.
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