JOHNSBURG - For the past several months, rumors of turmoil within the Johnsburg Emergency Squad have circulated throughout the community.
A letter to the editor in the Feb. 21 edition of the News Enterprise, submitted by Paul Sears, highlighted some of the controversy within the squad - in particular concern over the status of its volunteer staff. Sears' wife, Tara, was terminated from her paid position as Johnsburg EMS operations manager in the fall of 2008.
Details of her termination have not been made public and at this time she remains a volunteer member of the agency.
Sears has been a key member of the emergency squad for over 15 years and played a central role in its transition from a completely volunteer agency to the incorporation of paid staff several years ago. The transition to paid staffing, and the board's move to appoint Sears as operations manager, was made in an effort to preserve the squad's Advanced Life Support (ALS) certification.
While the key individuals involved in the current controversy agree that the squad must change the way they operate in the future - the nature and texture of these changes has resulted in divisiveness.
Some members privately feel that the squad will eventually be "ripped apart" by the existing turmoil or developed
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into an organization that no longer values the contribution of its volunteer members.
Other members maintain the position that for the squad to continue to function, and progress toward its goals, hard decisions will have to be made in regards to historical practices and personnel.
The Johnsburg Emergency Squad is a private non-profit corporation with a yearly contract to provide EMS service to the town of Johnsburg. Each year the squad receives roughly $60,000 of it's $300,000 operating budget in direct tax funding and another $15-$17,000 in indirect services such as housing, building maintenance, insurance, and utilities.
Since her termination, Sears has expressed concern for the manner in which some members of the Johnsburg EMS board of directors, and in particular its acting chairman, Mark Bergman, have treated the volunteer staff.
Bergman has personally come under fire for "driving out" squad members that do not agree with his agenda or vocalize support for Sears. His supporters counter the argument with the contention that Sears performed her job in a way that was detrimental to the organization and while the move has been difficult for the squad, it was necessary due to internal factors.
While Sears is willing to accept the loss of her paid position - the issue of the volunteer staff's treatment, including her own, remains a primary concern.
She cites several instances where volunteers have reduced their commitment to the minimum of 12 hours per month in response to her departure.
"People who were volunteering on a regular basis have all dropped back," she said.
Sears also expresses concern over the conduct of the squad's chairman, including what she feels are disparaging remarks made against her.
"As chairman of the board he should be working to stop things like this - not keep them going," she said. "That's the biggest problem that we all have - feeling like if you have a voice in the squad then you are going to be forced out."
For a squad that relies heavily on volunteer staff, particularly during the busy ski season, Sears notes instances where neighboring EMS squads are beginning to respond within the Town of Johnsburg.
As an example, she details an incident earlier this month where a Minerva ambulance apparently responded to a Johnsburg "third call" with just a driver.
"Johnsburg had its third ambulance sitting right there and it never got off the floor," she said.
"With the first crew you never have a problem because they are paid crews - at least for every shift except a couple. As for second and third calls - it is hard for us to get an ambulance off the floor without volunteers."
She noted her belief that while volunteers still care deeply about the squad, they are "not listening anymore" for volunteer calls.
Sears also worries about the "secretive" nature of the board and the lack of public attendance during squad meetings.
Earlier this week the News Enterprise was advised by Bergman that squad meetings are not open to the public or press except by invitation. He said, as a private corporation, they were not subject to "open meeting" laws. Opening meetings to the public could interfere with the privacy of patients and lead to litigation, he said.
"If that is true then why did they bring on community seats on the board three years ago?" Sears asked. "If it's none of the community's business what we do then why are we funding them?"
While Bergman agreed that the squad has been through a rough period - he said the changes were necessary to preserve the future of the squad. On a line-item basis, he vehemently disagreed with the statements and opinions expressed in last week's News Enterprise letter section and said he looks forward to putting this issue to rest.
"The reasons behind this termination are a personnel issue and will remain a personnel issue," Bergman said.
"Since her [Sears] termination the squad has actually gained seven additional volunteers.
"We've lost one member since her termination and that happens," he said.
Reacting to allegations that Johnsburg was having difficulty with "third call" responses - he said at least two of the instances were related to mechanical issues with Johnsburg's third ambulance. Of the three recent incidents that he recalled, all three were related to Gore Mountain at a time when Johnsburg's first two crews were dispatched already.
"Of our first calls, we have made better than 99 percent of them," Bergman said. "We absolutely do not have a response issue."
"We are making our calls," he added. "And any rumors to the contrary are simply not true.
"What we are hearing are the comments of a disgruntled employee who has not been contributing to the squad."
Bergman acknowledged that some members of Johnsburg EMS have been volunteering in communities like North Warren, but said improving conditions at the squad are leading to their return.
"In actuality - we have grown the squad, improved business practices, and now have volunteers doing the job of a $28,000 employee," he noted. "So we are in fact saving money."
Responding to allegations that he intends to create a paid position for himself within the squad, Bergman adamantly denied the claim and laughed at the suggestion.
"No way," he said. "I am doing this because the community needs it. Believe me - I have more than enough going on in my life to fill my days. I do this because I want to and the squad needs it. It's as simple as that."
Despite the controversy within the squad and various attempts to bring the issue to the town of Johnsburg's attention, the town has maintained an official position of neutrality. Due to the contractual nature of the relationship, the town has no authority to act on the issue unless they discover that the squad has failed to fulfill the contract terms.
Although the squad admittedly has internal problems - it has continued to maintain its excellent record of patient care, thanks to the hard work of its paid and volunteer members. In reality - that may be the only aspect of the issue that everyone can agree on.