WENATCHEE — A lawsuit against the state, initially brought by members of the Chelan-Douglas Board of Health, has “wasted an incredible amount of staff time” as the local health district tries to respond to COVID-19.
That was the verdict Monday from Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator Barry Kling, in the board’s first in-person meeting since the public health crisis began in March.
When Douglas County Commissioners Marc Straub and Dan Sutton and Wenatchee City Councilmember Ruth Esparza sued Gov. Jay Inslee in May over his emergency orders on COVID-19, they were acting as private citizens. But as elected officials, they’re also members of the Chelan-Douglas Board of Health, which oversees the Chelan-Douglas Health District.
In the Monday meeting, held in Chelan County Board of Commissioners chambers and streamed over Zoom, Kling said the lawsuit has created conflicts and taxed the resources of his office.
“That lawsuit has wasted an incredible amount of staff time,” he told the board. “I’ve had to spend days on records requests. (District health officer Dr. Malcolm Butler) had to spend a day with our attorney in attendance, at his hourly rate, giving a deposition.
“The whole entanglement of us, as individuals or otherwise with it, has interfered with our ability to manage the COVID response, and the rest of the health district.”
Straub and Sutton, with fellow Commissioner Kyle Steinburg and five other plaintiffs, sued Inslee in Douglas County last month. Esparza, with three other Wenatchee City Council members and 26 other plaintiffs, sued simultaneously in Chelan County. Both suits, led by Bainbridge Island attorney Joel Ard, alleged Inslee overstepped his authority maintaining the state of emergency he declared March 23, and had damaged the plaintiff’s livelihoods.
The Douglas County commissioners withdrew and their suit was dismissed June 1, and the remaining plaintiffs joined the Chelan County court case. Esparza also withdrew as a plaintiff. The suit before Superior Court Judge Kristin Ferrera is now moving forward with a total of 46 plaintiffs, including Wenatchee City Councilmembers Jose Luis Cuevas, Linda Herald and Travis Hornby; Grace City Church pastors Josh McPherson and Adam James; clothing store owner and state Republican committeewoman Marcy Collins; Wenatchee restaurateurs Kevin Smith and Shon Smith; and NCWLIFE host and former state representative Cary Condotta.
In the Monday meeting, Esparza said her goal on the board has been to modify a pandemic rebuilding plan that avoids state bureaucracy, which she says is hurting the local economy. “Put the lawsuit aside,” she said. “… If we’re able to show that we have a plan that’s been modified with added ways that we reopen ourselves, we’re showing everybody that we’re ready to go, whether it’s with the Governor or not with the Governor’s office. … That’s all I’m asking for, is that we have something in place that shows that we are in control of our community.”
Local businesses have struggled under the state’s pandemic mandates, which kept most restaurants, churches and other gathering places closed unless they offered delivery or takeout service, or were deemed “essential.” The essential designation, however, included big-box stores that sold necessities, but excluded smaller shops. Funeral services, large social gatherings, fairs and sporting events all had to be canceled.
In Chelan and Douglas counties, 463 people have tested positive for COVID-19, a novel coronavirus that causes fever and respiratory distress. Nine people in the two counties have died from the ailment. It has disproportionately struck the Latinx community, which comprises more than a quarter of the Wenatchee Valley’s overall population: 385 of the known COVID-19 patients have been Hispanic.
But hospitalization rates for the coronavirus have been low, and last week the two counties won a “modified Phase 1” status in the state’s four-phase recovery strategy. Restaurants and taverns can now be open at greatly reduced capacity, and some limited public gatherings are allowed.
Kling said his next request to the state, if the modified phase goes smoothly, would be a request to jump straight to Phase 3, in which gatherings up to 50 people are allowed and libraries and museums can reopen.
But two judges in the lawsuit have now said the health district is a key player, willing or not. Kling called the district’s entanglement with the case “a very corrosive and unfortunate influence on our attempt to protect the health of the community.”