County health board begins search for Thornburn's replacement


May 17, 2007


Staff Reporter

One head, it would appear, is better than two.

Now that Spokane Regional Health District board members have agreed to keep the same command structure for the department, a search can begin for a new health officer.

That will begin after board members agree on a job description and salary range, which will be up for discussion at the their next meeting on May 24.

Whoever gets the job, though, will have to have some administrative experience to go with his or her medical background. That's because the board was nearly evenly split on whether or not the jobs of chief health officer and administrator should be one position or two.

“It's not a case of good and bad (choices),” board member Rob Crow told his colleagues May 9. “I think it's good and slightly better.”

Crow – along with five other members – favored keeping the existing structure where the public health officer is also the head of administration for the health district, which serves all of Spokane County and a population of over 400,000.

The decision didn't come easily, however, as board members discussed for nearly three hours the pros and cons of having the job split into two posts that would report to the board. In the end, retaining the existing system of a public health officer who serves as the face of the health district won out in a 6-5 vote.

Crow was joined in his vote by county Commissioner and Cheney resident Bonnie Mager, along with fellow Commissioner Mark Richard, Mary Verner, Charles Wolf and Margaret Jones.

Bill Gothmann and Dick Denenny, board members who also sit on the Spokane Valley City Council, wanted to create two positions along with Todd Mielke, Brad Stark and David Crump.

Under state law, each health district must be headed by a medical officer who is a physician – though it doesn't necessarily need to be a full-time position. However, it doesn't preclude the hiring of a chief administrator who would run the day-to-day operations of the health district.

The command structure at the health district was put under the microscope after the board ousted Dr. Kim Thorburn from the health officer's job last November. Thorburn was fired after problems with communication and personality conflicts with health board members.

Mager, however, implored fellow board members not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and overhaul the district's leadership roles due to a bad experience with Thorburn.

“I think we have a tendency to overreact when something is wrong,” Mager said. “As a private citizen, I don't want to see the health district run by politicians.”

Mielke, who also sits on the Board of County Commissioners, was in favor of separating the duties of the health officer and administrator due to the ever-growing complexities of running a health district with over 250 employees and a $23 million budget.

“It is a significant agency,” he said. “How do we adapt in a way that doesn't diminish the scope of the health district?”

Denenny agreed, adding that it might be easier to hire more qualified people if the jobs were separate.

“My gut keeps telling me we'll get a stronger pool of applicants,” he said.

While some health officers in other large health districts in the state do spend significant amounts of time on purely administrative matters and not on medical issues, critics of splitting jobs – including Torney Smith, the health district's current administrator – believe it would blur the chain of command.

“I feel its better to have one person responsible to the board,” Wolfe said. “The buck stops there.”

After a vote on a motion by Stark to split the positions failed, the board voted unanimously to retain the current arrangement.

The board will next meet May 24 at 12:30 p.m. at the Spokane Regional Health District administration building, 1101 W. College.

Mike Huffman can be reached at


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