Whenever cars crash in Oxford and someone calls 911, fire Chief Gary Sparks said recently, the dispatcher on the other end of the line typically asks two questions.
“Is anyone hurt?” An answer yes triggers an Oxford Emergency Medical Services ambulance, Sparks said. An affirmative to the second question — “Is anyone trapped in the vehicle?” — dispatches Sparks’ firefighters, who assist paramedics on the most severe wrecks and in other medical emergencies.
The two agencies were called together to emergencies 287 times last year, Sparks said. The ambulance dispatchers likely answer many more calls than his agency does. Every call to 911 for medical assistance made in the city or the surrounding area results in a crew from Oxford Emergency Medical Services climbing into a white and gold ambulance and racing toward whoever’s hurt.
But the nonprofit ambulance agency — which has existed in Oxford in some form since at least 1970 — as well as its current board of directors have been drawn into litigation in recent weeks. An office manager working at the agency in June filed a lawsuit against the directors, alleging they habitually ignored state laws regarding public meetings as well as a city policy on nepotism.
That employee and the agency’s other office manager were put on paid leave the morning after a recent board meeting. Board members voted unanimously at that meeting to retain a Birmingham law firm to represent them. One of those lawyers, to whom all requests for comment on the suit have been referred, did not know who would replace the two women, who say they handled all of the agency’s office work, including bookkeeping and billing.
The agency’s director, Ricky Howell, declined to speak to a reporter this week. Howell referred questions to two attorneys — one representing him, and the other representing the board as a whole.
‘That confused everyone’
Speaking to a reporter recently, the two suspended employees described a close-knit operation made tense by decisions from Howell and the board of directors concerning employees.
Despite that tension, the employees said, the agency’s paramedics remain focused on doing their jobs.
“Our guys are totally professional down there,” said Missy Hall, the office manager who filed the civil suit against the agency. “It leaves them with questions, and you can’t blame them for that … honestly, no one sits around and talks about it at work.”
The agency’s 24 full-time paramedics work 24-hour shifts, Hall said, from a city-owned building along U.S. 78 on Oxford’s west side.
The paramedics get two days off after each shift — and those shifts can be hectic, with more than 40 calls for help answered some days.
“That’s a really busy shift,” Hall said. She compared the operation to Sparks’ Fire Department: “When a call comes in, you go.”
In that suit, Hall alleges that the agency’s board members held a meeting April 19, but gave no public notice of that meeting.
Hall believes the board hired Howell’s daughter for a full time position at the agency, and promoted a paramedic to training officer — a new position within the agency.
Shortly thereafter, the training officer received a nearly 50 percent pay raise and choice working hours.
“It’s been questionable for months now what it is that he actually does,” Hall said. It seemed the man was responsible for more than making sure paramedics were adequately trained, Hall said, when he started disciplining employees.
“That confused everyone,” said Hall. “If he was given that authority, none of us were told.”
Lance Bell, an attorney representing Howell, on Wednesday said by email he did not have time to answer questions about the training officer’s employment.
Hall’s attorney, Ted Copland, on Wednesday asked for a judge’s verdict in his client’s favor. He argued that the defendants, Oxford Emergency Medical Services’ board of directors, had failed to make any response to Hall’s suit within the time allowed by law.
Attorneys for the agency later the same day argued against Copland’s motion, saying in court documents that Hall’s complaint provides no claim that a judge could satisfy. The filing did not address her allegations, but asked the case be dismissed.
Writing by email Wednesday, Mark White of the Birmingham law firm White, Arnold & Dowd, called Copland’s filing “spurious.” White said he would be traveling to the Alabama State Bar’s annual meeting, and did not have time to answer other questions.
Bell, Howell’s attorney, emailed a statement Wednesday.
“When individuals start running to the media in order to fabricate stories to further their cause then they are scared of the true facts,” Bell wrote. “These individuals will be held accountable for the vicious lies they are spreading. We look forward to the future and bringing the true facts to light at the appropriate time.”
Circuit judge Shannon Page has set an Aug. 8 hearing on the agency attorneys’ request for dismissal.
Beyond city limits
Hall’s lawsuit and the agency’s reaction to it — suspending Hall and Moody, who both characterized that move as “retaliation” — has raised other questions about Oxford EMS.
The employees say whether the agency is a part of the city’s government or separate from it has been a gray area for as long as they’ve worked there. Oxford’s mayor has said he believes it separate.
But the City Council in 2009 approved an application for incorporation of the agency, though it already existed. Mayor Alton Craft has said that move was made to allow for Oxford EMS employees to have access to Alabama’s retirement system. State and local government employees as well as public education employees are members of that system.
Joel Laird, a retired attorney and former circuit court judge who has protested a request to state regulators by Oxford EMS to expand its services, believes the 2009 incorporation is invalid.
Laird has argued that no state law allows for the creation of an agency like Oxford EMS, which he alleges operates throughout Calhoun County and far beyond the city limits of Oxford.
The application made in 2009, meanwhile, noted that the three people interested in forming Oxford EMS — Moody, Howell, and then director Randy Third — all were “duly qualified” electors of the city of Oxford.
But Moody lives inside Talladega city limits, she said recently. She’s never lived in Oxford.
Moody says that in 2009, Third asked her to sign on as a founder of the EMS agency. Neither he nor anyone else told her she needed to be a resident of the city of Oxford.
“What I was told was that … this was the best way to keep the business functioning,” Moody said.
Reached by phone Wednesday, Third declined to comment before consulting with his attorney. While not involved in the suit directly, Third said he sought a lawyer after being asked by Laird to sign an affidavit in the case.