What’s up with EMS?
A phrase that has its origins in the mid-1800s is one any good investigative journalist holds as an unspoken mantra: “There’s more to this than meets the eye.”
Try as a I might, I can’t shake the phrase from my mind as I consider the ongoing and curious case of the pending resignation of county emergency medical services director Ed Debesis.
Resignations are generally an easy thing. An employee says “I resign” and an employer responds “OK.”
Simple, right? Apparently not so for Debesis, as commissioners failed Monday for a second consecutive week to formally accept his resignation while an audience of about 15 emergency medical personnel packed the commission room, supposedly there in support of Debesis staying on.
That’s just the sort of thing where “There’s something more to this than meets the eye” comes to the fore.
What’s going on here? Follow along as a I do a brief recap.
Debesis gave a regular report to commissioners as part of their scheduled agenda March 19, during which Commissioner Dianne Novak questioned him about how he was staffing the Peabody ambulance with someone from another town. He then left.
However, Debesis returned at the end of the meeting and asked for an executive session to discuss personnel matters, which commissioners agreed to. When they emerged, commissioner Dianne Novak moved to accept Debesis’s resignation. The motion died when the only other commissioner present, Randy Dallke, declined to second it.
Unusual, to say the least, and even more curious when Dallke was heard saying to Novak that it was “all your fault” after the meeting adjourned.
I’ve always found Debesis to be professional in our encounters, so it was no surprise when he was asked by our reporter for the reason for his resignation that he simply responded, “I’m tired,” and declined to elaborate.
Commissioners were back in session Monday, joined by about 15 EMS personnel who responded to an email from Debesis’s secretary asking for their support. This time, Dallke suggested openly that the resignation was prompted by Novak’s scrutiny. Once again, a decision was deferred, this time to a special Friday meeting.
Odd again. Why would a man resigning because he’s tired need a show of support from people who evidently want him to stay on? Could it be that he wasn’t just tired, but that he was tired of being repeatedly questioned about his management decisions?
From what happened at the meetings, and from Debesis’s comment, there’s precious little information to really know what’s happening or why, and that’s just wrong.
County citizens were thrust into a period of turmoil and uncertainty with the ambulance service when one former director, Steve Smith, resigned, and another former director, Brandy McCarty, took over.
Since Debesis took over, EMS has gone through a radical change from using volunteers to full-time staff for most of its runs, supplemented still by a smaller, and shrinking, group of volunteers.
The budget of the department expanded hugely, and that’s taxpayer money. County citizens have doubled down on their emotional and financial investment in the service, and they deserve the straight scoop about what’s going on with their lifeline.
One reason we don’t have it is government’s persistent reliance on using secret executive sessions to conduct business, particularly when it comes to that oft-used justification of personnel matters.
It’s clear from actions taken by several bodies after executive sessions that the personnel exemption is often abused. When commissions, councils, and board have met in secret and then emerged to immediately pass pay raises for whole classes of employees, those were illegal executive sessions. Pay schedules like that must be discussed in open session.
Officials often blur or ignore the line between what are organizational management issues and individual personnel issues. The former has to be discussed in open session; the latter does not.
Taken as a whole, the little tidbits we have about the commission and Debesis could suggest that some, if not all, of what was discussed behind closed doors should have been out in the open. It’s a close call, but when management decisions are questioned, those should be discussed openly, as Novak tried to do.
However, there’s also the serious issue of micromanagement by people whose job it is to set policies and hire competent people to actually make management decisions.
Debesis’s tenure hasn’t been without criticism. No one implementing such large changes from the past is immune from critique from those who want things done the way they always have been, and by those who question if the new direction is the best way to go. Debesis knew that when he took the job.
It appears, though, that he may have reached the tipping point where repeatedly being put on the spot to justify individual staffing decisions and other routine management tasks is more than he cares to endure. He hasn’t said so directly, but when one considers everything that’s happened, that’s what meets the eyes of many, including me.
If one believes in taking cues about managers from the people who work for them, and I do, Monday’s show of support for Debesis was a positive message about the state of the EMS system under his leadership. There are still things to work on with staffing, with dispatches, with other things, but his employees believe they’re finally on the right track. They’re the ones who do the work. That should count for something.
We hope Friday’s session, which will likely be discussed in secret again, won’t be kept secret for long. If Debesis decides to stay, the public deserves to know what’s going to change to avoid a repeat of this three months down the road. If he decides to go, we deserve to know at least some substantive reason why, and what will be done to prevent the same thing from happening with a new director.
We wish all parties well come Friday. We hope whatever happens will be in the best interests of the citizens of Marion County. And we hope there’s not a repeat in this or any other department any time soon.
— david colburn