WENATCHEE — In early June, some Chelan-Douglas Board of Health members wanted the health district to consider using an outside expert’s plan to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The request led to an argument through a series of emails between some board of health members and then-Health Administrator Barry Kling.
That exchange led to Wenatchee Councilwoman Ruth Esparza, also on the board of health, saying in an email to Kling, “We need to work together, but it is my humble opinion that you are trying to obstruct the board from doing our due diligence as elected officials.”
“I have always thought that part of my job is to give you my best professional opinion,” Kling responded. “I am sorry you do not like the opinion this time around, but it is a mistake to accuse me of obstruction, much less of being (along with our staff) the biggest threat to the health of the community.”
This email exchange was one of many The Wenatchee World obtained in a public record request — first filed by Columbia Legal Services, for Kling’s emails. The Immigrant and Latinx Solidarity Group and Columbia Legal Services allege the emails show that some members of the Board of Health, who are also local elected officials, prioritized the welfare of the business community over public health.
The emails do highlight concerns about the direction of the board from Kling, Health Officer Malcolm Butler and former Health Board Chairwoman Jill Thompson. Thompson is also a registered nurse and the only member of the board of health with medical experience.
Thompson said in an interview on Thursday she felt the board was losing sight of its priorities and confusing their roles as elected officials with their roles as board of health members.
“There were some commissioners that were using it kind overly politically,” Thompson said. “They were really worried about the economy and they said things and did things that pushed Barry in a way that he didn’t believe.”
Kling on Friday declined to comment and said people could interpret the emails however they wanted.
The Board of Health consists of two commissioners from each county, Chelan and Douglas, one member each from the cities of Wenatchee and East Wenatchee and one member from a rural city in each county. The board of health hires the health administrator, who runs the health district.
The health district provides services on everything from inspecting septic tanks to coordinating efforts to tackle a pandemic.
Esparza said in an interview Friday that she was not confusing personal politics with the duties of the health board.
“The board has always, always put public health as a priority,” Esparza said. “And the fact that some of us board members got involved in a lawsuit on our personal time, not having anything to do with the board, is very separate and apart.”
Several of the board members — Douglas County Commissioners Marc Straub and Dan Sutton, and Esparza — were plaintiffs involved in a civil lawsuit attempting to overturn Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy,” order. All three eventually removed themselves from the unsuccessful lawsuit.
In an email, Esparza asked the board to reschedule a meeting so members could attend a hearing on the litigation.
She was only speaking to the members of the board involved in the lawsuit and not encouraging the entire board to attend the civil lawsuit, Esparza said in an interview Friday.
The lawsuit was a serious point of contention between Kling, Butler and Thompson and other board members.
Kling also said in an email exchange he felt pressured to participate in the civil lawsuit from Chelan County Sheriff Brian Burnett.
“Sheriff Burnett called me to urge that I immediately provide a statement regarding the Board of Health resolution of 5/26, providing an official copy since the one provided with the lawsuit was labelled a draft,” Kling said. “He insisted that I do this immediately and report back to him when this was done.”
Burnett said in an interview Thursday that the situation had been taken out of context. The plaintiffs in the civil lawsuit were trying to reach Kling and couldn’t, so Burnett reached out to him. Burnett said he was not a participant in the lawsuit, but was connected with those involved.
“I didn’t have the skin in the game,” Burnett said. “Did I have a personal belief on where I wanted the lawsuit to go? Absolutely, because I don’t believe the governor should have the right to do what he did based on certain things.”
Thompson said in an email exchange that she was “deeply troubled” by the actions and emails of board members. In particular, both she and Kling were concerned about a push by board members to use a health plan developed by an outside source, Debbie Weber.
That health plan used the Chelan-Douglas Health District’s existing influenza plan, with some adaptions, and said it was sufficient to respond to the current pandemic, according to the plan’s cover letter.
“(The health plan) was basically a rewrite of our influenza plan so (Esparza) could make the court case that coronavirus was just a form of flu and that the governor was overreacting,” Thompson said in an interview.
The plan — made by Darcy Webber — was sent by Shawn Ballard of Ballard Ambulance. Overbay and Esparza asked Kling to just look at it, Overbay said. The email exchange confirms that Ballard was the first to send the plan.
“It wasn’t so much pressure from us,” Overbay said. “It was to offer some assistance, because our staff was being worked really hard, Barry was working some long hours. It was, ‘Can we take a different approach to this thing?’”
Ballard asked Webber to help because she helped restructure the environmental health division of Public Health — Seattle & King County department. She is not an epidemiologist and does not have a medical degree, Ballard said Friday.
According to her resume, which was in the email exchange, she has a master’s in public health and global communicable diseases from the University of South Florida and is currently studying for a doctorate in naturopathy from Bastyr University in Kenmore Washington. She also served as a preventive medicine officer for the United States Army and a deputy surgeon, according to her resume.
Health Officer Butler also sent an email to Board of Health Member Marc Straub, a Douglas County Commissioner, asking Straub if he’d used a statement by Butler in his role as health officer in the civil lawsuit.
In an interview on Thursday, Thompson said it sometimes felt like members of the board were more worried about reopening the economy than the pandemic or virus. They were pushing Kling to submit applications to move to higher phases, despite knowing the counties did not qualify.
“They were not realizing how hard these people (health department employees) were working,” Thompson said. “What is it that they’ve done.”
Kling was working seven days a week and responding to crisis after crisis, including an outbreak in infections within nursing homes, she said. She started to worry that he was going to burn out. Kling did eventually announce his retirement on June 23.
“We did have a very functioning health district,” Thompson said. “I don’t think we do currently. I think we’re in a world of hurt.”
Kling retired along with several other health officials and other employees of the health district have started eyeing the door, she said.
“They depended on Barry. He was a good administrator, he was a good epidemiologist, he was a good public health official,” Thompson said. “We were so lucky to have him.”
Thompson also stepped down as chairwoman of the board in July. The board needed a more political chairperson, who could handle phone calls and emails 24/7, she said.
“I’m really not a political animal,” Thompson said. “I’m here to make the town of Waterville run well. I’m more of a city manager than a politician.”