Transparency advocates scrutinize Spokane health district directive to not email concerns

click to enlarge Spokane Regional Health District staffers who emailed safety concerns to their bosses were told not to document those types of issues in emails. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO

Young Kwak photo

Spokane Regional Health District staffers who emailed safety concerns to their bosses were told not to document those types of issues in emails.

In our cover story this week, current and former employees of Spokane Regional Health District spoke out about the negative relationship between staff and leadership within the district that has contributed to dozens of managers and executive leadership team members quitting in the last two years.

One of the disagreements that led some staff members to speak out (anonymously for fear of losing their jobs) was the handling of Spokane County’s isolation facility for COVID-19 positive community members.

People who can’t isolate at home after a positive test can be put up in a motel by Spokane County to avoid large outbreaks among some of the most vulnerable populations, such as at homeless shelters.

After the county decided to stop using My Place hotel in Spokane Valley, SRHD staff were initially told homeless shelter operators could handle isolating people on their own. But after it quickly became apparent that wouldn’t work, Spokane County hurriedly decided to start housing people at the Rodeway Inn in the Valley at the start of September.

SRHD staff immediately saw issues with dirty rooms, unsafe activities in the area, and a lack of privacy and security for clients staying there during their up to 10-day isolation periods.

Staff detailed issues they saw at the motel in emails to their bosses. But they were shocked when managers called to tell them not to put those concerns into emails. Instead, they were told to write issues in a document labeled “draft” if they felt they had to share details with their managers. Multiple staffers saw that as a blatant attempt to circumvent Washington’s public records law.

One employee was so disturbed by the directive that they documented conversations about the topic while on the phone with their managers and allowed the Inlander to review that documentation.

Rather than concern for their clients, the staffers said they felt higher-ups were more concerned with the possibility of a bad news story about the poor conditions at the facility.

“If we’re not doing anything wrong, we have nothing to hide,” the SRHD employee told the Inlander. They recall thinking, “We were bringing problems and concerns to you to ask you for help.”

Suzie Saunders, the union representative for Protec17 members who work at the health district, sent an email to Clark on Sept. 22 after multiple employees made her aware of the calls directing them not to document the situation in emails. She asked Clark to follow contract rules and put the new policy in writing if that was the case, and questioned the legality of skirting public records law.

“I received some reports from staff that they had been verbally directed to no longer put safety concerns into the body of an email, and instead write them down in a Word document titled ‘draft’ in order to avoid public disclosure of sensitive issues,” Saunders tells the Inlander via email. “I brought this concern to Amelia, and she essentially denied that the direction was issued.”

Clark wrote back to Saunders on Sept. 22 to say “This is the first I am hearing of a policy – I don’t know of any rules/policies related to this.”

But, Clark wrote, she was aware that staff had been reminded to ensure anything they put in district documents is factually accurate and investigated.

Clark declined to speak specifically about the incident with the Inlander.

Multiple board members from the Washington Coalition for Open Government scoffed at the directive to only put concerns in “draft” documents. Former president Toby Nixon described the move as “smarmy.”

“It’s one thing to say ‘give me a call,’” Nixon says. “It’s another thing to falsely say it’s a draft in order to evade disclosure.”

Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle attorney who serves on the coalition board, couldn’t think of any case law where similar directions were given to staff and then a court case followed. But she said it’s possible similar situations arose somewhere and the person who gave that direction was fired as part of an unpublicized settlement.

If such a directive to hide information comes from an elected or appointed official, Earl-Hubbard tells the Inlander via email, that could be grounds for removal from office for misconduct. She notes that no “draft” exemption exists under the public records act, as even when a draft can be blocked from release during policy discussions, once a policy has been finalized, that draft is subject to disclosure.

“In 25 years as a lawyer litigating PRA cases and representing newspapers I keep expecting our leaders and public servants to be smarter about their actions and to realize the harm they cause to themselves and the public’s trust of their agency with antics like [this],” Earl-Hubbard writes. “Then I see an example like yours and have that same, shocked, ‘What were they thinking?!’ reaction I have been having for nearly three decades.”

This isn’t the only apparent attempt to avoid paper trails in Spokane this year. Spokane’s City Administrator Johnnie Perkins allegedly told a former division head earlier this year to just talk to him in person or on the phone rather than send emails.

The Public Records Act states, in part, “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies that serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they maintain control over the instruments that they have created.” 

Article Source: Inlander