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A Fight for the Soul of the East Hampton Ambulance

Fri, 03/17/2023 - 16:01
Teri Bertha, a volunteer with the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association
Durell Godfrey Photos

A boisterous group of 40-plus ambulance volunteers, many from the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association but some “mutually aided” from nearby departments, showed up for a public hearing before the East Hampton Village Board on Friday to speak out against a plan that would have the ambulance association come under village control.

The village has proposed a new Department of Emergency Medical Services, with leadership positions appointed annually by the village board. The ambulance chief would report directly to the chief of police, and the village board would act as its board of commissioners. The ambulance association would remain to recruit, train, and maintain morale among its members, but would lose operational control of the ambulance.

Outside the Emergency Services Building, ambulance volunteers held signs that read, “Honk if you love E.M.S. volunteers.” Inside, the room was packed; it was the most well-attended village board meeting in recent memory.

Carrie Doyle, a village trustee, broke the ice with a joke about the upcoming Hamptons Whodunit mystery weekend in April and an event called, Who Killed the Mayor? “Perhaps some in attendance might be interested,” she said.

The mood quicky darkened. Mayor Jerry Larsen began the hearing, which lasted over two hours, with some comments. When audience members took issue with part of his statement, he said, “If you’re going to interrupt me, I’ll ask you to leave.”

Rancor at times flew from both sides. In a departure from the usual public hearing format, where people speak and the board simply listens, the mayor often engaged in direct debate with speakers, at times flashing anger.

“No one is trying to eliminate the volunteer program at all,” he said. He offered a 100-year history of the ambulance, stopping at the beginning of his administration, when communication problems began. He blamed the previous ambulance chiefs, Lisa Charde and Ann Grabowski, for refusing to attend the village’s weekly departmental head meetings.

“When you have leadership that refused to deal with the mayor, it can’t work that way,” he said. “You can’t have leadership by a majority vote.”

Ms. Charde called from the audience “You were invited twice while I was chief,” to ambulance association meetings.

“Let’s see a copy of the email inviting me,” said Mayor Larsen.

Over text, Ms. Charde said later that the email would have been sent from her ambulance association account, and that she no longer has access to that account.

When Teri Bertha, who remains a volunteer, called the mayor “flippant” for the exchange, he shot back, “I’m flippant? You’re out of line, lady.”

He said the new ambulance association chiefs, elected by the members in November “have received nothing but resistance from a small group of seven or eight people,” the same “disgruntled people” that have left the association.

“I didn’t know I was disgruntled. I thought I was heartbroken,” said Sheila Dunlop, who volunteered with the village ambulance for 34 years and recently resigned.

Indeed, it was the village taking control of the chief-selection process that raised the most consistent hackles among those who spoke.

“Mary Ellen [McGuire] and Mary Mott were not elected by us,” said Pablo Betancur, who remains a volunteer, “they were elected chief by default.” Many held a view that Ms. Mott, named ambulance chief in November, and Ms. McGuire, the new assistant chief, were hand-picked by Mayor Larsen and are representing only the administration’s viewpoint.

“We weren’t broken. This isn’t about some failure. It’s about taking decision-making that was traditionally there, taking it away,” said Bess Rattray, a volunteer who recently resigned.

Sandra Vorpahl, a member of the ambulance association for 25 years who recently went exempt, pushed back on accusations made by the mayor against Ms. Charde and Ms. Grabowski. She commended their work during Covid.

“They’ve been humiliated and called toxic by the mayor. They were not toxic. They were strong women who didn’t kowtow,” she said.

Ms. McGuire read from a letter written by Ms. Mott, who was on vacation and unable to attend the hearing. In it, Ms. Mott said she believes the authority to run the ambulance lies with the village and disagreed that the changes meant the village was taking over the ambulance association or forcing volunteers out. “This is a perfect time to reimagine the department,” she wrote, adding that members should “not hold onto the past” and that the people who have left, “have their fixed mind-set and have chosen their own path.”

Village Police Chief Michael Tracey described a rocky relationship between volunteers and paid ambulance employees. “The friction started on day one,” he said, cautioning that if volunteers left, the outcome would be more paid employees.

“It has to be put back together. Do the best thing for the public and the patients,” he said.

J.P. Foster, the head of the East Hampton Village Emergency Communications Department, agreed. “The number-one issue that’s at hand here is patient care; no one wants paid, but we need it.”

“You’re losing a lot of institutional knowledge,” said Tiger Graham, a former village trustee who was liaison to the ambulance association. “Had you gone into the process being more inclusive, you might find you had less resistance.” He criticized the idea of the board selecting chiefs, saying it was unqualified to do so.

“Sorry Jerry, you’re not a doctor. You cannot take all these great volunteers; you can’t just cut them out of the process. They are the ones who know how the operation works. They’re the ones who should select their chiefs,” said Mr. Graham.

“I tried for two and a half years. What do you want me to do?” said Mayor Larsen. “I’m not going to be held hostage by a small group of people who don’t want to communicate with the village board. Don’t stand up here and tell me about a process that I need to do better at. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I know full well what I’m talking about, Jerry,” said Mr. Graham.

 Maureen Bluedorn made a point of addressing the entire board, not just Mayor Larsen. “You all have responsibility here and you were all voted in separately. You’re hearing from your community they’re unhappy with the process,” she said. To vote now, she said, would be a mistake. She urged more conversation. “I personally am going to hold everyone on the board accountable,” she said.

To the board’s credit, it heard the criticism. Once the hearing was closed, a recess was called so people could eat lunch. When they returned, Mayor Larsen said the law would be amended.

“I want to change some of the wording, to make it closer to what the Fire Department does, which will allow for the village ambulance to make their own elections,” he said. The elected chiefs would then be approved by the board of trustees.

He said a draft of the law would be written in time for the next village board meeting on April 21, and a new public hearing would be held.

“I think that should calm some of the concerns,” he added.

Note: This article has been updated since it first appeared online.




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