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Emotions Run High at East Hampton Village Ambulance Hearing

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 at the East Hampton Village Board meeting on Friday to speak out against a plan that would have the ambulance association come under village control.

The village has proposed creating a 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 but would lose operational control of the ambulance, and but would be charged with recruiting and training volunteers and maintaining morale. 

Outside the Emergency Services Building, ambulance volunteers held signs that read, "Honk if you love E.M.S. volunteers," amongst others. 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 history of the ambulance ("The village bought its first ambulance in 1920") to the beginning of his administration, when communication problems began. He said the old ambulance chiefs, Lisa Charde and Ann Grabowski, refused to attend the weekly departmental head meetings held by the village administration.

"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.

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.

"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.

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

"Mary Ellen 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 and Ms. McGuire were handpicked by Mayor Larsen, and are representing the administration's viewpoint and not standing up for the ambulance association's membership.

"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.

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 held.

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



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