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  • Last modified 1026 days ago (Dec. 2, 2015)

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Rotting from the top

It’s said a fish rots from the head down, a proverb that affixes blame to leadership for an organization’s failures.

The fish head for the travails of Marion County EMS has been the county commission, despite protestations from those bunkered in the courthouse that the problems mostly all originated “out there” among divisive and disgruntled EMS staff.

It’s with staffing issues that the rot is most apparent.

Monday’s open public forum related to reinstatement for Larry Larsen was potentially the most damaging in a string of questionable decision-making stretching back nearly a year and a half.

Commissioners invited public comments in open session. What they didn’t tell anyone beforehand is that they would pick and choose what information would actually be public.

The few people who showed up for the meeting were all Larsen supporters; it’s been that way all along.

However, when it came to a letter from a county employee opposing Larsen’s reinstatement that Dan Holub introduced after supporters had their say, he slammed the open door shut on transparency, refusing to reveal the letter’s content.

The county rejected two requests from this newspaper for a copy of the letter, using what we consider to be questionable interpretations of the Kansas Open Records Act as justification. Our own expert on open records, Kansas Press Association legal consultant and attorney Max Kautsch, emphatically stated that a letter written to influence a decision and introduced in a public meeting is an open document.

The danger here should be readily apparent. Commissioners just declared open season on Larsen for anyone determined to keep Larsen out of service. Others should take note, too.

There’s no need for detractors to be accountable in public for their accusations; they can write a letter about anything they want, as long as it includes an excuse for commissioners to invoke “personnel privacy” to keep everybody in the dark. There’s free rein to engage in character assassination without any public rebuttal.

Of course, that’s consistent with a commission whose only invitation to Larsen was to be present at his unexplained firing.

The abrupt firing of director Steve Smith following an all-too-common secret executive session set in motion a series personnel-related issues commissioners have been directly involved in, and it’s not a shining track record.

They were shocked and dismayed by the price tag to get a qualified replacement for Smith, so in a recurring theme, they concocted an alternative: Ignore their own official policy to do what they want.

Applicants must meet minimum qualifications, county policy says, but they hired a director who was unqualified to apply. She had over a decade of administrative experience, and that’s what the job needed, they said. She would get the minimal EMS certification soon, so why bother with the obstacle of established policy?

McCarty lasted just a year before resigning, and in public comments before she left, she told commissioners what they didn’t want to acknowledge: her supposed qualifications, as pumped up by commissioners, were insufficient for the demands of the position.

Commissioners effectively undermined McCarty from the start by not rewriting her job description to reflect what they said they wanted.

Things started going badly almost from the start. The EMS medical director resigned. Some EMS personnel with higher certifications and far more experience didn’t warm up to McCarty and her managerial style.

Commissioners undermined their own director by stepping in with strong-arm tactics to force out an allegedly recalcitrant EMS crew chief, and dragging in the new EMS advisory board chair Gene Winkler into a succession of private personnel meetings. It was a clear signal to all that commissioners, not McCarty, would handle difficult issues.

At about the same time, the state EMS board started receiving allegations of personnel doing unauthorized procedures beyond their certifications.

McCarty and two others have been disciplined, and the board opened an investigation of the EMS service. It is possible, given comments in an upcoming state board agenda, that additional issues are soon to surface. Local advisory board members openly discussed in a meeting the possibility that the ambulance system could be downgraded to basic transport only.

These and numerous other issues strongly suggest it’s time for commissioners to give up a good portion of their involvement in personnel issues by giving department heads real authority to make personnel decisions.

Part-time commissioners shouldn’t be micromanaging personnel issues. In most public and nonprofit institutions, the only time governing boards get involved with personnel issues is when they’re the final review step in a grievance process. They give directors the authority and procedures necessary to deal effectively with personnel.

This won’t address all the issues surrounding personnel, but it would allow part-time commissioners to devote more time to making better, more informed decisions about things that have widespread impact, and making sure those decisions reflect the policies and procedures they put in place. We don’t need another mess like the one we’re still dealing with.

— david colburn

Last modified Dec. 2, 2015

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