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Why was Larsen canned?

There’s nothing quite so convenient, and inconvenient, as when public officials’ reasons for firing an employee are cloaked behind that nebulous, seemingly impenetrable cloak of “confidentiality of personnel actions.”

Such is the case with last week’s firing of Peabody paramedic Larry Larsen from the Peabody EMS crew and as deputy county coroner. Commissioners remain tight-lipped when asked for rationale.

It’s convenient for commissioners because they’re excused, by invoking confidentiality, from answering the outcries of many Peabody residents distraught by the action and its impact on Peabody EMS, enough so that an online petition was started demanding Larsen be reinstated.

However, the decision affects more than Peabody. As a paramedic, the highest level of emergency responder, Larsen’s abilities were unique and essential for certain emergency transports to out-of-county hospitals, and Larsen went on many such calls for patients needing to be transferred from St. Luke Hospital and Hillsboro Community Hospital.

Those transports will still happen, as there are others who can fill in, but an option has been removed from a countywide volunteer EMS crew already stretched thin in places.

Confidentiality is inconvenient for those of us who want to understand why these compromises that can affect patients are preferred over a having a paramedic with a quarter century of volunteer EMS service who could provide for special needs across multiple communities.

When, in February, commissioners wanted to oust Tampa EMS crew chief Jesse Brunner, they were outspoken as to why: Loss of confidence in Brunner and an alleged refusal to work with EMS director Brandy McCarty.

That came after 35 minutes of closed-door deliberations, but commissioners didn’t fire him. They passed the buck to the Tampa crew, threatening to pull the ambulance out of Tampa if they didn’t dump Brunner and choose a new crew chief.

Why weren’t they concerned about the confidentiality of personnel matters with Brunner? EMS advisory board chairman Gene Winkler, who was in the executive session, said they needed to have full cooperation of all crews. What was left unsaid by all was the obvious tag, “And here’s what happens if you don’t.”

Larsen said he wasn’t given a reason why he was getting axed during his five-minute closed session with commissioners. It’s a claim backed up by the commission’s dismissal letter, crafted by a Wichita attorney. Kansas is an “at-will” employment state, it explained; simply put, that means an employee can be terminated at any time without just cause or warning; and that, as they say, is that.

Commissioners have a progressive discipline policy in which verbal and written warnings are preferable whenever possible prior to termination; it had to be fresh in their minds since they reviewed it in open session just two weeks before they canned Larsen.

Larsen admits to two improprieties this year: Using inappropriate language, for which he said he was written up, and claiming several on-call hours on his monthly timesheet that were covered by another member of his crew, although he said it was common practice to pay that back by reciprocating the favor. Both were wrong, but both are things correctible short of firing someone.

So what was so egregious it couldn’t be fixed by anything other than termination? Your guess is as good as mine.

Let’s be clear here: I’m clueless as to whether Larsen should still be on the Peabody EMS crew or not. Perhaps he deserved to be fired. I don’t know because no hint of a reason has been offered.

I’m concerned here, based on how commissioners handled Brunner and Larsen, that they will spill or not spill reasons for actions coming out of closed door executive sessions as it suits their purposes to do so.

Under Kansas Open Meetings Law, they’re free to discuss in public what they talked about in executive sessions. They’re right to avoid details, but in Brunner’s case they made clear their rationale without them. They wanted people to know why they were forcing him out.

Larsen was a veteran paramedic in a town so concerned about keeping a viable ambulance service that its community foundation paid for five people to become EMTs, yet just one has become certified. There are those that believe, right or wrong, that Larsen was an anchor that assured EMS would be there as long as he was. His abrupt, unexplained dismissal, coupled with the sudden removal of the Peabody ambulance and a sign saying it would no longer be based in Peabody set off an anxiety-fueled frenzy to create a petition to save Peabody ambulance. Having the ambulance back in the garage with reassurances it will stay there hasn’t quelled all that anxiety.

Commissioners ask and expect us to trust that those clandestine conversations stick to the letter of the law, that relevant evidence is weighed impartially and thoughtfully, and that forthcoming actions in open session are right and just.

Of course, we’re supposed to forget it was commissioners who repeatedly ignored their own rules to give away taxpayer money for no good purpose; hardly a ringing endorsement for integrity. And we’re supposed to forget how they handled Jesse Brunner.

Commissioners were elected to serve the public’s best interests, not their own. A generalized explanation won’t satisfy hardliners, but it could show commissioners aren’t blind to constituents’ needs, nor that they acted on a whim.

Commission chairman Dan Holub said he could sleep well knowing he made the right decision. Some of the rest of us would like a little better sleep, too.

— david colburn

Last modified Nov. 5, 2015

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