Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
WASHINGTON — Of the eight agenda items discussed by the Washington County Board of Supervisors Tuesday morning, six were related to the ambulance department.
The vacuum left by Interim Ambulance Director Pat Curl’s resignation last week, coupled with a number of ongoing policy discussions about the service has put the county in a difficult position.
Director suspended, interim quits, replacements elusive
With no ambulance director in place, the county faces a vacuum in leadership at the service.
“I believe the next in chain of command would be the field supervisors,” County Attorney John Gish said. “They’re … equal in rank, so that begs the question of who takes 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” against suspended director Jeremy Peck, while two others signed the same letter.
He suggested hiring an interim director from outside of the department as a way to avoid possible conflicts of interest related to that letter.
“Thinking of a leadership perspective, I think it would be best to have outside assistance, rather than promoting within to that interim position,” he said.
County Supervisor Jack Seward Jr. — the Board of Supervisors’ liaison to the ambulance service — said he had reached out to three possible candidates in the last week. Of those, he said one did not reply, another declined, and a third unexpectedly became unavailable due to a family emergency. That leaves the county with few quick options to fill the gap.
“We’re still going to be without an interim outside director for that period of time,” Seward said. “If we find somebody in the meantime to fill that emergency spot … we plan on a special meeting just for that purpose.”
County Supervisor Stan Stoops said he worried about internal conflict at the department in the meantime.
“Those four field supervisors, there’s some issues between them,” he said. “There should be a spear head, there should be, in my opinion, somebody’s got to make it. You can’t have the four of them disagreeing.”
While appointing a field supervisor amid few alternatives is legally valid, Gish said he had no specific suggestions.
“I know there’s some internal things going on over there, and I’m not sure which of those four would fit,” he said. “I don’t have a recommendation on that, not a legal one, anyway.”
Board faces accusations of micromanagement
Some have accused county supervisors of over-managing the ambulance service since Peck’s suspension.
Dana Peck — who is Jeremy Peck’s mother — spoke during the public comment period at the meeting.
“The Washington County Supervisors are destroying the Washington County Ambulance Service,” she said. “The minutes … indicate the micromanaging of the ambulance department and waste of money to Washington County taxpayers in handling personnel matters.”
County supervisors said they didn’t want to overextend their reach into department decisions, but lacked better options as the department went on without a director for now.
“These folks are about ready to see some micromanaging if we don’t have an outside interim director and if these four field supervisors can’t get along,” Seward said.
Lack of leadership worsens existing problems
The slew of other ambulance-related agenda items Tuesday morning highlighted the impacts of the leadership void, and the knowledge lost with suspended or resigned directors.
Supervisors discussed changes to an employee’s job description for 20 minutes, before instead giving that employee a temporary new appointment in lieu of a recommendation from the service.
“We don’t want to change this job description … we’ve talked about doing that, but that was previous administration,” Supervisor Marcus Fedler said. “Now we’re kind of in flux, so I would suggest we wait and let the future administration, whatever that looks like, decide how they want their department to run.”
A similar tone was struck on discussions about a new ambulance chassis, for which county officials said they didn’t have an expected delivery date to budget around, and weren’t sure how to find one. The same held for conversations about interim director pay, with no suggestions provided by the previous interim before his resignation.
The disputes of previous weeks also remain on hold as the department awaits new leadership. Supervisors said they still lacked data regarding a transfer ambulance service, which then-Interim-Director Pat Curl said he would seek in the weeks before his exit.
Some third party solutions ruled out, others encouraged
The county’s willingness to hire outside professionals to address ambulance matters varies from one issue to the next.
During her public comments, Dana Peck criticized the Board of Supervisors’ discussions of hiring third party legal consultants and Human Resources consultants for ongoing investigations at the ambulance department.
“We have a paid county attorney, why is the board wasting money to hire another attorney?” she said. “The county also pays a human resource attorney, but has found it necessary to hire another … why are you wasting more taxpayer money?”
Later in that meeting, Seward said he had come to a similar conclusion, offering the board no recommendations for HR consultants after reaching out to such contacts last week.
"At the time, it seemed like we should have someone that could concentrate their focus more fully on the issues that are coming up in the ambulance department,“ he said. ”But as things have developed for now, I don’t know that we can depend on another outside HR person to come in and solve the problem that we’ve been having … I don’t think it would be good use of our tax money.“
Seward said the county would continue to work with an HR consultant out of Des Moines that it has contracted for the last several years, though that work is limited to “high-level guidance,” not specific nuances of investigations.
On other matters, the county has shown more openness to outside work. In addition to the search for a new interim ambulance director, supervisors approved plans for an independent audit of the service’s billing practices.
Seward said the third party audit was an industry standard.
“Ambulance services generally … every so often have an outside audit of their billing practices,” he said. “This is just to ensure nothing is slipping through the cracks, and everything is going as we expected it.”