- This article is an update to “A new sheriff in town” article
- Board of Health members provided statements
- Health District alleges Dr. Spitters already had the authority the Board of Health voted to give him during the special meeting on May 21
- Washington Coalition for Open Government is looking into possible Open Meetings Act violations
- Snohomish Health District is currently “talking with its attorneys about next steps.”
Story udpate 1:40 p.m. May 28: On May 27, City of Snohomish Councilwoman Linda Redmon provided her statement to the Lynnwood Times clarifying the purpose of her Facebook post implying that indirectly Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney somehow influenced the Health Board’s decision. Here is her statement in its entirety: “I did make the post in the Recall Fortney group, which I’ve been following to understand what my community thinks about the matter, just as I follow other groups commenting on the matter. I wanted to share with that private group that elected officials that had to vote on enforcement action were receiving threatening communications, and that I felt blame could be traced back to Fortney’s statements, because the Stag Barber Shop’s owner explicitly stated he was open due to Fortney’s statements. The electeds were receiving threats due to a vote related to supporting enforcement action by the Health Officer. It is reasonable to wonder if threats to elected officials for having to make decisions related to enforcement activity will be treated seriously, given his stance. My vote as a Board member was in no way informed by any stance toward Fortney. I was voicing frustration on Facebook that public health staff and Board members have to face these threats and I do blame the Sheriff’s stance for leading to the need to even have to vote on enforcement actions.”
On Thursday, May 21, the Snohomish County Board of Health approved by a vote of 11 to 4 to give Snohomish County health officer, Dr. Christopher Spitters, the authority to pursue legal action against businesses that do not follow his COVID-19 directives. This was a special meeting on zoom of the Health Board and the subject matter does not appear to be on the agenda.
In its May 20 article, “Local health officers have authority to involuntarily isolate or quarantine,” the Lynnwood Times confirmed with the Snohomish Health District that the authority to pursue involuntary compliance (isolation or quarantine) against an individual also resides with the County’s local health officer, Dr. Christopher Spitters.
Heather Thomas, Snohomish Health District spokesperson on behalf of Dr. Spitters stated in an email to the Lynnwood Times, that according to state statues, Dr. Spitters already had the authority the Board of Health voted to give him during the special meeting on May 21 and that allegedly guidance was requested.
Thomas wrote, “RCW 70.05.070(1) and RCW 43.70.190 provides a local health officer with clear authority to file civil actions to address the spread of contagious disease and to address public health issues… Given that initiating litigation, and the potential for multiple cases, has financial impacts, guidance from the Board was requested.”
The Board of Health is comprised of a total of 15 Board members – five county council members and ten city elected officials throughout Snohomish County. The Health Board oversees both policy and the budget of the Snohomish Health District. The vote breakdown is as follows:
Health Board Vote
Those that voted “No” to give Dr. Christopher Spitters, the authority to pursue legal action against businesses were: Scott Bader, Everett City Councilman, Sam Low, Snohomish County Councilman, Nate Nehring, Snohomish County Council President, and Jeff Vaughan, Marysville City Councilman.
Those that voted “Yes” to give Dr. Christopher Spitters, the authority to pursue legal action against businesses were: Elisabeth Crawford, Mukilteo City Councilwoman, Megan Dunn, Snohomish County Councilwoman, Christine Frizzell, Lynnwood City Councilwoman, Adrienne Fraley-Monillas, Edmonds City Councilwoman, John Joplin, Brier City Councilman, Anji Jorstad, Lake Stevens City Councilwoman, Jared Mead, Snohomish County Councilman, Dan Rankin, Mayor of Darrington, Linda Redmon, Snohomish City Councilwoman, Kyoko Matsumoto Wright, Board Vice Chair, Mayor of Mountlake Terrace, and Stephanie Wright, Board Chair, Snohomish County Councilwoman.
Health Board statements
The Lynwood Times reached out for statements by all Snohomish Health District board members, Dr. Christopher Spitters, and Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. We received responses from Bader, Low, Nehring, Vaughan, Frizzell, Redmon and Heather Thomas, Snohomish Health District spokesperson on behalf of Dr. Spitters.
According to Lynnwood City Councilwoman Frizzell, she voted for the bill “to allow Dr. Spitters the same action that would be taken for any other health violation.”
County Councilman Low in an email to the Lynnwood Times stated he felt a lack of transparency. “I was blindsided and voted NO on the proposed motion because I was uncomfortable with the consequences and risks associated with this directive. I had the option to abstain but voting NO sent a stronger message.”
County Council President Nehring also voted against the motion fearing it sent the wrong message to business owners and felt it abdicated authority and responsibility away from the Health Board.
“I believe it sends the wrong message to prosecute business owners who are struggling to feed their families while the state is releasing criminals from jail. I believe we, as elected officials, have a responsibility to those who elected us to make difficult decisions and I’m opposed to deferring this responsibility to an unelected health officer who does not directly answer to the people.”
Marysville Councilman Vaughan shared a similar sentiment. “I voted against the motion because I believe there are significant constitutional issues in granting Dr. Spitters broad enforcement authority. I also believe that granting these powers to Dr. Spitters overrides the enforcement authority of local jurisdictions.”
Vaughan added, “Having Dr. Spitters act in an enforcement role puts him and the district staff in an adversarial position with those they serve. This will undermine their efforts to protect our citizens from current and future health threats.”
Everett Councilmember Bader was concerned with putting the Everett police department in an adversarial position with residents. “My no vote was because I was concerned about putting the Everett police department in a very difficult position… to enforce a judicial order to shut down a business.”
City of Snohomish Councilwoman Redmon stated in her email reply to the Lynnwood Times that she followed the direction of her constituents. “The majority of my community in Snohomish has asked that I, in my Board of Health position, address the businesses that have chosen to open against guidelines. My vote was made with the intent to support the authority that by law, rests with the Health Officer to fulfill duties related to public health.”
However, on the evening of May 26, Redmon posted in the Facebook group, “Recall Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney,” that the Board of Health voted to give enforcement actions against businesses to Dr. Spitters because as she puts it, “Thanks to Fortney.”
Redmon’s Facebook post again call into question the purpose, intentions, and motives of the vote to give Dr. Christopher Spitters the authority to pursue legal action against businesses that do not follow his COVID-19 directives.
The Lynnwood Times has reached out to Redmon for further clarification late evening of May 26. Due to printing deadlines, we will update her response online when it is received.
It has also been brought to the attention of the Lynnwood Times that according to RCW 40.30.080, Washington state statues governing special meetings, motions must be related to the subject matter of a special meeting’s agenda. According to the agenda of the special meeting held May 21, 2020, it appears there is no mention of the subject matter to give the Snohomish County health officer any authority to pursue legal action against businesses that do not follow his COVID-19 directives.
In special meetings, the Health Board must state the time and place of the meeting and the business to be transacted. Final disposition of any matter not listed on the agenda is expressly prohibited. According to RCW 42.30.120, the fine for such a violation is $500 per board member; and according to RCW 42.30.060, any action taken at meetings failing to comply shall be null and void.
According to Thomas, the subject matter giving Dr. Spitters this authority “was on the agenda and states potential action may follow.” According to the agenda item, the Executive Session was for “purposes of pending litigation pursuant to RCW 42.30.110(1)(i) and real property pursuant to RCW 42.30.110(1)(c).”
RCW 42.30.110(1)(i) encompasses enforcement or discussion of potential litigation of financial consequence; whereas, RCW 42.30.110(1)(c) encompasses real estate being offered for sale or lease.
The Lynnwood Times has partnered with the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG) to further investigate the Snohomish County Board of Health’s handling of this and other meetings.
WCOG is a Washington nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to promoting and defending the public’s right to know about the conduct of public business and matters of public interest. WCOG has an active legal committee and regularly participates as amicus in appeals raising open government issues.
If you recall in 2018, the Washington State Legislature approved bill SB 6617 exempting its members from the Public Records Act enacted 48 years ago by voter initiative. SB 6617 was scheduled with little notice, no hearings and scant debate. It was approved just 48 hours after it became public, drawing outrage from voters and media across Washington state. WCOG was an opponent to and filed amicus briefings against SB 6617.
Thomas, has informed the Lynnwood Times that the Snohomish Health District is currently “talking with its attorneys about next steps” to escalate actions against businesses that do not comply with health officer directives.
The next regular Board of Health meeting is scheduled for June 9, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. For a full list of available committee and board meetings visit https://www.snohd.org/calendar.aspx?CID=27.