Washington County Attorney John Gish is speaking with the board of directors about options for a new interim director of emergency services in light of recent resignations and paid suspensions. (Kalen McCain/The Union)
WASHINGTON — Of the eight agenda items discussed Tuesday morning by the Washington County Board of Supervisors, six involved the Ambulance Department.
The vacuum left by the resignation of interim ambulance director Pat Curl last week, along with a series of ongoing political discussions about the service, have put the county in an awkward position.
Director suspended, resigned in the meantime, replacement elusive
With no ambulance director in place, the county faces an on-duty leadership vacuum.
“I think next in the chain of command would be the field wardens,” District Attorney John Gish said. “They’re . . . equal, so that begs the question of who will take over as interim director.”
Gish said one of those field supervisors was named in a letter to the board calling for a “vote of no confidence” in suspended director Jeremy Peck, while two others signed the same letter.
He suggested hiring an interim director from outside the department to avoid potential conflicts of interest related to this letter.
“Thinking of a leadership perspective, I think it would be best to have outside support rather than promoting this intermediate position internally,” he said.
County Supervisor Jack Seward Jr. – the board of supervisors’ liaison to the emergency services – said he had reached out to three possible candidates in the last week. Of those, he said, one did not respond, another declined, and a third was unexpectedly unavailable due to a family emergency. This leaves the district with only a few quick options to close the gap.
“We will still be without an outside interim director for this period,” Seward said. “In the meantime, if we can find anyone to fill this emergency spot … we will schedule a special meeting just for that purpose.”
County Supervisor Stan Stoops said he was concerned about internal conflicts in the department in the meantime.
“These four field supervisors, there are some problems between them,” he said. “There should be a spearhead, I think there should be someone who has to make it. You can’t let the four of them disagree.”
While appointing a field manager is legally valid among few alternatives, Gish said he has no specific suggestions.
“I know there’s some internal stuff going on over there and I’m not sure which of those four would fit,” he said. “I have no recommendation, at least not a legal one.”
Management is accused of micromanagement
Some have accused county supervisors of over-managing the ambulance service since Peck’s suspension.
Dana Peck – Jeremy Peck’s mother – spoke during the public comment phase of the meeting.
“The Washington County Supervisors are destroying the Washington County Ambulance Service,” she said. “The transcript … points to the micromanagement of the ambulance department and the wasting of Washington County taxpayers’ money in the handling of personnel matters.”
District supervisors said they did not want to overstretch their influence on department decisions, but lacked better options as the department continued without a director for the time being.
“These people are willing to see a little bit of micromanagement if we don’t have an outside interim director and if those four field directors can’t get along,” Seward said.
Lack of leadership exacerbates existing problems
Tuesday morning’s slew of other ambulance-related agenda items highlighted the impact of the leadership gap and lost knowledge of suspended or resigned directors.
Managers spent 20 minutes discussing changes to an employee’s job description before giving that employee a temporary new hire rather than a recommendation from the service.
“We don’t want to change that job description … we’ve talked about it, but that was previous administration,” Supervisor Marcus Fedler said. “Now we’re kind of in flux, so I would suggest that we wait and let the future administration, whatever that looks like, decide how to run their department.”
A similar tone was struck in discussions of a new ambulance chassis, for which county officials said they had no estimated delivery date to plan for and were unsure how to find one. The same applied to talks about the interim director’s remuneration, with no proposals made by the previous interim before his resignation.
The disputes of the past few weeks remain suspended while the department awaits new leadership. Bosses said they still lacked data regarding a transfer ambulance service that then-interim director Pat Curl would request in the weeks leading up to his departure.
Some third-party solutions excluded, others recommended
The county’s willingness to hire outside professionals to handle ambulance matters varies from one issue to the next.
During her public statements, Dana Peck criticized the board’s discussions of hiring outside counsel and human resource consultants for ongoing investigations in the Ambulance Department.
“We have a paid district attorney, why is the board wasting money hiring another attorney?” she said. “The county also pays for a staff attorney but has found it necessary to hire another…why are you wasting more taxpayers’ money?”
Later in that meeting, Seward said he had reached a similar conclusion and had not offered the board recommendations for recruiters after reaching out to such contacts last week.
“Back then it seemed like we needed to have someone who could focus more on the issues at hand in the ambulance,” he said. “But how things have turned out now, I don’t know that we can count on another outside HR person to come in and fix the problem we’re having… I don’t think it would be a good use of our tax dollars.” “
Seward said the county will continue to work with a Des Moines recruitment consultant it has hired in recent years, although that work is limited to “high-level guidance” and not specific nuances of investigations.
In other matters, the district has shown itself to be more open to external work. In addition to finding a new interim ambulance director, supervisors approved plans for an independent audit of the service’s billing practices.
Seward said third-party testing is an industry standard.
“Ambulances in general … have an outside audit of their billing practices from time to time,” he said. “This is to ensure that nothing is overlooked and that everything works as we expected.”
Comments: [email protected]