Conflict flared at the Town of Chester board meeting on Oct. 12 about how ethics complaints about the board should be handled and then about the ethics of Mobile Life Ambulance billing.
Early in the session, Brandon Holdridge, a town councilman, raised a proposal for the ethics board he originally pitched during September 14’s town board meeting. Currently, when someone submits an ethics complaint, it goes to the town board first and is either dismissed or sent to the ethics board. Holdridge felt that this process is backward, allowing the town board to dismiss ethics complaints about themselves and their allies. Any ethics complaint should go to the ethics board first, then the town board, he said.
“I think it’s a big improvement...a lot of people believe it should go to the ethics board,” he said, adding that, prior to pitching, he researched several governments in Orange County that use this procedure.
“I went around the county looking at other town and village codes, and I did find quite a few that did what I suggest,” Holdridge said. “I spoke to Monroe, and they actually answered some of the concerns some of my colleagues had about creating a large increase of complaints if we send it straight to the ethics board...Monroe specifically said there is no large influx of complaints. No anonymous complaints allowed. The ethics board decides which complaints are founded and unfounded. But whatever they come up with is just a suggestion to the town board. The town board ultimately decides what happens with the ethics complaint.”
Holdridge contends that the system is more straightforward and prevents a conflict of interest that the current or future town boards could have.
“Let’s say a town employee allegedly does something unethical...the town supervisor and other town council members have a close relationship with that employee...and you know, then there’s a bias there,” Holdridge said, an example of what could happen under the current system.
The other board members disagreed. Councilman Robert Courtenay said that the town board is trustworthy enough to view ethics complaints before the ethics board does.
“Part of why we were elected is because we’re ethical. So if we’re ethical, I don’t see why we have to circumvent and change how we’re doing things,” Courtenay said.
Robert Valentine, the town supervisor, ended the conversation and claimed that the current ethics system functions perfectly well.
“If you’re going to change something for reform, do it for something that’s broken and not working...In Chester, since I’ve been here for 10 years on the board, we’ve never had an ethics complaint until recently,” Valentine said.
Following his comment, the other members agreed not to proceed further with Holdridge’s proposal.
Towards the end of the meeting, Valentine brought up a comment Holdridge made on Facebook concerning Mobile Life. The ambulance provider services the Hudson Valley and is currently facing charges for illegal balance billing of patients. On October 9, Holdridge posted on Facebook that Mobile Life is “preying on vulnerable people after some of the worst moments of their lives,” and he not only planned to investigate further but had also reached out to residents who’ve had negative experiences with the company.
Some comments he received included one resident waiting for 30 minutes after being bitten by a copperhead snake, and another who paid $900 for his daughter’s ambulance ride when she had an allergic reaction.
Other board members challenged his comments. Valentine claimed that Holdridge put the town in danger of losing its medical services. “What if the company had just shown up and said ‘we’re out of here, we’re leaving and left us with nobody?” He said, adding that Mobile Life has “done nothing wrong to us in Chester.”
Courtenay called Holdridge “reckless” and criticized him for not sharing his interactions with residents with the board before the meeting. “You get all these comments but you don’t share them with nobody here,” he said.
Cindy Smith, the deputy supervisor, chalked up the balance billing to “computer glitches” and suggested that patients’ complaints likely result from stress at the moment. “All of a sudden, two minutes turns into 10 minutes in their brain, and then it escalates,” she said.
In response, Holdridge asserted he has the right to publicly state his feelings on the situation and did not have “sole power over what happens with Mobile Life.”
“Are you not allowed to tell the residents, as an advocate, that I’m going to speak with the ambulance company about this to find out what the issue was and report back to the town about my findings from it?” Holdridge said.
Currently, Mobile Life has declined to speak with Holdridge, and they have not put out any statements in regard to the situation. Contacted later, Valentine said that ethics complaints he had encountered were “trivial.”
Robert Courtenay said that the town board is trustworthy enough to view ethics complaints before the ethics board does.