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Spurned Ambulance Association Members Aim to Sue Village

Thu, 11/30/2023 - 11:44
Teresa Bertha speaking at an East Hampton Village Board hearing in March on the creation of the new Emergency Medical Service Department.
Durell Godfrey

The East Hampton Village Ambulance Association, an independent nonprofit, petitioned the Suffolk County Supreme Court on Nov. 15 to ignore a statute of limitations that would prevent it from suing East Hampton Village for what the association alleges was a takeover of its ambulance service certificate and its bank account, which, as of May 31, had a balance of $386,717. 

To proceed with a lawsuit, the association will first need the court’s permission.

On April 21, the East Hampton Village Board approved the creation of a new Department of Emergency Medical Service and made it the responding ambulance agency for the village and the Northwest Fire Protection District. That was a big change. Since 1975, the ambulance association had served that role. The ambulance service certificate (sometimes called a “certificate of need”) was transferred to the E.M.S. Department and the ambulance association was relegated to the role of a fraternal organization meant to boost morale and train ambulance members. 

The ambulance association tried suing the village last winter, claiming its ambulance service certificate had been transferred without its notification or agreement. But by February, the lawsuit had lost momentum. “The lawyer dropped the ball, failed in his objective, and hasn’t returned our retainer money,” said Geraldine Merola, a former ambulance association member who is now an ambulance volunteer with Springs and Bridgehampton. By the spring, 20 to 25 percent of East Hampton Village Ambulance Association members had quit or gone “exempt” because of the pending legislation. 

When the legislation passed, the ambulance association lost control of its bank account. It is now managed by Mary Mott, the chief of the E.M.S. Department, and Laura van Binsbergen, its treasurer. 

“In order to bring a lawsuit against a municipality, you have to file a notice of claim in 90 days,” Joel Ziegler, the new attorney for the ambulance association, said in a phone call on Nov. 22. “In this case, the village confiscated the checking account of the E.H.V.A.A., so they had no money to file a suit. I’m expecting that the court will grant us an extension to file the late notice of claim. The E.H.V.A.A. is a standalone corporation. The village ran roughshod over their property. That ambulance service certificate cost $10,000 and the village simply took it over.” 

On May 15, shortly after the E.M.S. Department was created, 27 members of the ambulance association (which included members who had quit or gone exempt during the fight with the village) held a meeting at 200 Pantigo Road, in the East Hampton Healthcare Foundation building. Neither Ms. Mott, nor Mary Ellen McGuire, the first assistant chief, was present, yet both were ousted from their leadership positions in a “no confidence” vote. Amanda Thompson was voted president, and Teresa Bertha vice president. 

On Sept. 15, Ms. Thompson resigned as president. In her resignation letter she wrote, “I have made this decision based on my determination that a majority of the membership no longer wishes to continue to move in the direction forward that I recommend, and instead prefers litigation.” At the end of her letter, she congratulates Ms. Bertha for assuming the position of president. 

So, it is Ms. Bertha who is listed both as the petitioner and as the president of the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association in the court documents. 

The relationship between the E.M.S. Department and the ambulance association is murky. Ms. Mott, whom the village recognizes as both chief of the E.M.S. Department and president of the ambulance association (she won reelection as president in a vote on Tuesday night), says at present there are 33 active ambulance volunteers who make up the association. However, 12 of those volunteers were present at the May ambulance association meeting and voted against her. Because there were 27 people at the May meeting, it also means there are 15 other volunteers who have gone exempt or left the village ambulance who still consider themselves to be in the East Hampton Village Ambulance Association. 

“The reason there’s a difference in membership is because some of the members of the original volunteer ambulance joined the newly formed village corporation. Many of them are employed by the village and they were afraid if they didn’t do it, they would be fired from their village employment,” said Mr. Ziegler. 

“That’s inaccurate,” Mayor Jerry Larsen said in a phone call on Tuesday. “Only one ambulance member is employed by the village, and that’s part time in the summer.” 

“They tried to hold a coup d’état,” Marcos Baladron, the village administrator, said by phone. “They held a meeting off site, against their own bylaws. They removed two chiefs in one fell swoop and reinstated all the members that resigned. The village does not recognize their vote. Mary is still the head of the E.H.V.A.A. Teri Bertha is masquerading as the chief,” he said. “You can’t lie to a court and purport to hold a title and rank you don’t hold and file a lawsuit on behalf of an organization that you’re not a leader of. Ms. Bertha does not have a grip on her horses. This case is going to get dismissed.”

Ms. Mott sent a letter, dated Nov. 27, to Mr. Ziegler in which she wrote, “Please be advised that I am currently the Chief and President of the Association and have served in these capacities for the past year. To that end, Teresa Bertha is not the President and is not an officer or director of the Association. Ms. Bertha has no authority to commence any litigation. As the President of the Association, I am hereby directing that you discontinue the Petition and any related proceedings.” 

Mr. Ziegler received another letter from Bradley Pinsky, a lawyer representing the village as special counsel, demanding that he terminate the proceedings by Dec. 1. It closed with a warning: “Although we will accept that you have been unknowingly misled by Ms. Bertha, if you continue this matter, we will have no choice but to report you to the Attorney Grievance Committee for suborning perjury and/or allowing a witness to perjure themselves before a court.” 

“Their letter misstates the facts and we’re not backing off,” Mr. Ziegler said by phone call Tuesday morning. “They simply stole an account. They had no right to assume that by incorporating a new ambulance service they had a right to take over an independent corporation. They took over an organization that had no connection to the village other than serving the village.” 

Ms. Bertha was let go by the E.M.S. Department in early November. Her problems with the department began, she said, when she asked about the mutual aid policy. Mutual aid refers to an agreement among surrounding ambulance districts to come to one another’s aid if they can’t get a crew together for a call. Ms. Bertha questioned and took a photograph of a flier hung in the “bunk room” of the paid personnel, an area recently made off limits to volunteers. The flier outlined a “Paid Employee Mutual Aid Response Policy.” In all red capitals, underlined at the bottom of the flier, it read: “At no time will East Hampton Village E.M.S. be stripped of all paid providers to cover a neighboring district.” 

Ms. Bertha says the flier was hung in a public space in August and moved in September into the paid personnel bunk room. She received a “letter of counsel,” a warning, for entering the bunk room. 

“Their official mutual aid policy that is being communicated to paid people is not the agreement they signed with surrounding ambulance districts,” said Ms. Merola. “Anybody who knows anything about it has been gagged. I’m not bound by their gag order, which may not even be legal.” 

Meanwhile, in a text, Ms. Mott said the policy photographed by Ms. Bertha represents “An in-house, paid provider policy which does not negate the intent of the mutual aid policy.” She regretted it had become “weaponized.” 

“Teri Bertha was caught trying to take a photograph in a room she’s not allowed to go in,” said Mr. Baladron. “The flier was taken down because it was not the case. A fire commissioner’s meeting was held, and the mayor denied that was the policy.” 

Later, Ms. Bertha also said that she responded to a Facebook post made by a paid responder who no longer works for the village. Ms. Mott told her that by doing so she violated the department’s social media policy, and that’s when she was let go. 

“There’s a village-wide social media policy that’s the same for all departments,” said Mayor Larsen. 

“The E.H.V.A.A. is falling apart,” said Ms. Bertha. “They’re not calling any fraternal events to get us together. They’re not allowing exempt members to attend meetings. They hold meetings in a building that we were thrown out of. All we want to do is volunteer for our community.” 

“The only people who are allowed to volunteer for the department are the people they like,” said Ms. Merola. “If they don’t like you, they’ve deactivated your key to the building and they won’t let you in, no matter how current your E.M.S. certification is. Everything that belongs to the association is being held hostage in that building.” 

“We have no agreement with the association right now,” said Mayor Larsen. “People who have resigned are not allowed in. Exempt members, under village code, are only allowed a beach permit. Once we get past this litigation and move on with a new association, then the exempt members will be given their privileges back. The village has no control over the association assets. The association has full control. Mary spends money every day because she was elected president of the E.H.V.A.A.” 

“Part of this is that we have one man, that 1,300 voters voted for and he’s making ambulance policy for the town,” said Ms. Merola. “This is why the E.H.V.A.A. was an independent organization. You can’t have one man, elected by some very fortunate people, making policy for thousands of town families that never got to elect or vote against him. Most of the 1,500 ambulance calls a year are outside the village. Only 300 are inside the village,” she said. 

At the Nov. 21 East Hampton Town Board work session, the board voted unanimously to accept the Northwest Fire Protection District contracts, which includes the village ambulance services. Gerry Turza, the village’s fire and emergency services administrator, spoke up during the public comment portion of the meeting asking why the contract wasn’t on the agenda. The town attorney, Rob Connelly, then left the meeting to add them as a walk-on resolution. 

“If anything, that’s a vote of confidence for our new department,” said Mr. Baladron. “I’m happy this is all coming to a head. It’s time to expose some of these individuals and for a court to get involved.” 

“This whole fight that a disgruntled group of people are waging causes fear among some that there may not be an ambulance when they need it. I want to reassure everybody that’s the furthest thing from the truth,” said Mayor Larsen. 

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