A debate over ambulance service in Kennesaw has positioned the mayor, an employee of the city’s ambulance service provider, at odds with council members who want the city to be able to pick its own provider.
MetroAtlanta Ambulance Service began as the city’s provider last summer after a letter sent July 2 by the Georgia Department of Public Health informed the city it was not in compliance with state law. The letter said Kennesaw was required to use MetroAtlanta, the authorized EMS Region III provider, rather than Georgia EMS, the company it had used for the previous 14 years.
Mayor Mark Mathews, who has been employed as MetroAtlanta’s government relations manager since 2009, strongly opposed a draft resolution presented by councilmember Bruce Jenkins during last Wednesday’s work session. The resolution requested the Georgia EMS Region III board to put a formal request into the state Legislature to amend the state Constitution to allow cities to select their own ambulatory services.
Councilman Bruce Jenkins said Friday he was disappointed the mayor chose to participate in the discussion due to what he believed was a conflict of interest.
“I wish the mayor would have continued with his recusal and not participated in that section of the meeting,” Jenkins said.
A July 24, 2012 ethics board meeting dismissed an ethics complaint against Mathews alleging he had used his mayoral email account to conduct personal business and did not recuse himself from city business regarding his employer.
Mathews did not refer to either service by name during the work session, but he did discuss the history of the city’s decisions regarding ambulatory services during the 30-minute debate and vocalized his opposition to the proposal.
Mathews said he has previously recused himself when the city discussed specific services, including last summer when the council discussed the city’s change from Georgia EMS to Metro.
But on Wednesday, Mathews said he did not believe he had to recuse himself because he did not believe he was engaging in a conflict of interest.
“While it is not really necessary for me to recuse myself because the city does not contract with an ambulance provider, the city would not have been, was not going to be contracting with the company that I work for,” Mathews said. “There were some that decided to make that very political at the time, and so out of the best interest of everybody, I just went ahead and recused myself there.”
Mathews said the discussion was about cities being able to choose their providers.
“That has nothing to do with my employment,” he said. “That has nothing to do with my real-world job. It has to do with the city. So there was really no reason for me to not be involved with that conversation.”
Jenkins said he attended a recent EMS Region III board meeting and spoke with Chairman Dr. Jon Harvey, who recommended Jenkins come back with a resolution to the board showing full support by the mayor and council to move forward in the lengthy process of changing state law.
However, both the mayor and Mayor Pro-Tem Jeff Duckett opposed the resolution, so the council did not move forward with the measure and did not discuss it at Monday night’s regular meeting.
Councilwoman Cris Eaton-Welsh said she liked the proposal as it would provide the city more options if the level of service ever declines with the city’s ambulance provider.
“We’re at the mercy of the region board and it would be nice at the very least if we started to have these conversations about being able to (decide) what we want to do,” Eaton-Welsh said.
Eaton-Welsh also took issue with the city’s representation on the EMS Region III board, which determines the EMS provider for Cobb cities including Kennesaw.
“At the very least, I’d like to see us have some representation on that board,” she said. “The closest representative we have lives in Smyrna.”
Duckett, who is president of the Cobb Municipal Association, said the Region III board already takes care of doing what the resolution intended to do with more qualified representatives making the decisions.
“What qualifies us to determine what service is best?” Duckett asked. “There’s nobody in this room that knows what type of equipment they need, what certifications they need, what training they need. … That’s why they have a board made up of people that are in that line of work and know what they need to have to service a certain place.”
Jenkins said any service the city would choose would have to be state licensed and/or certified; a consideration the city always takes into account when contracting services.
“It wouldn’t be like us running the outfit, we would just contract it out and we would have a say,” he said. “And you want that right for your citizens.”
Duckett also worried about city liability if someone died, saying he would prefer to keep operations the same.
Jenkins recognized that the resolution would be the first in many steps, from the region board to the state level, and take quite a long time.
“We know how hard it is to get an amendment to a constitution,” he said.
Mathews questioned why the EMS Region III board would willingly give up its own authority and said the requested change “completely puts them (the board) out of business.”
“Your request is to put it back to where it was in the ’70s and let it become a free-for-all,” Mathews said, noting under the change, city governments could adopt services based on relationships rather than quality of service.
“It was just a race to the call and promoted a very dangerous environment,” he said of the time before the state handled EMS services.
Mathews added the board represents a cross-section of people in the ambulance industry and is set up in a very “common-sense approach.”
Eaton-Welsh said she planned to speak to Commissioner Brenda Fitzgerald with the Georgia Department of Public Health on the matter. The mayor took issue with Eaton-Welsh moving forward after the council failed to come to a consensus.
“It needs to be very clear that you are speaking as an individual and not a council member, which I think is not possible to do, because I think there’s no way to take that hat off, especially since you are dealing with a state agency,” Mathews said.
She told Mathews she was entitled to speak her opinion as a council member, but Mathews said she couldn’t represent the city in the interaction. The issue was dropped after it was apparent Eaton-Welsh would address the commissioner regardless of the warning.
Jenkins said Friday he won’t be backing down, either.
“At this point, I’ll continue to monitor and voice my perceptions and beliefs that municipalities need representation increased on the Zone III Council EMS board,” Jenkins said.