Washington health district employees say leadership, politics driving resignations

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Dozens of Spokane (Wash.) Regional Health District employees have left the health system, citing poor leadership and political pressure as the driving factors, the Inlander reported Oct. 14.

When Spokane Regional Health District staff were put in a hotel to self-isolate in the beginning of September, they quickly noted the squalid conditions, according to the Inlander. Cockroaches, dirty mattresses and drug use all contributed to the unsafe environment. The staff went on to tell higher-ups, expecting the situation to be quickly resolved. Instead, they were told to make the situation work, and managers told staff not to disclose complaints in writing, as it could make the district look bad.

Current and former Spokane health district staff, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Inlander that there was a "culture of fear" in the organization and a growing disconnect between administrators and staff. "We keep thinking, 'Oh things can't get worse,' and they just continue to get worse," one district employee told the Inlander. "We're not allowed to ask questions without getting our hand slapped, and in some cases, formal write-ups." The district administrative officer, Amelia Clark, said she was unaware of any such policy in an email to a union representative.

Political pressure as well as internal strife may be driving the issues, some former employees speculated. Washington's health districts are overseen by health boards, the majority of which are made up of elected politicians. A former district staff member told the Inlander that fear of political consequences and an eagerness to ensure decisions bode well for public perception could be contributing to the issues.  

Currently three of the five top division leadership positions remain unfilled, and other management-level roles have been vacated. Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said, "Local health departments, because they've been under-resourced for so long, they don't have a bench to draw upon. There's no immediate replacement when a health officer leaves."

While Ms. Clark declined an interview with the Inlander, she said in a written statement that the tolls of the pandemic along with other stressors contributed to the recent turnover. "It's also possible that decisions I have made at Spokane Regional Health District may have contributed to some decisions to leave, but of course, people change jobs for a wide variety of reasons," Ms. Clark wrote.

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