GEMS, Dell’Abate nomination sail through RTM

Before it went off on its summer vacation, the Greenwich Representative Town Meeting (RTM) still had some highly publicized items to take care of, which it did with ease on Monday night.

During the meeting, comparatively brisker than the typical RTM standard at a mere hour and a half, the body moved through an agenda that included overwhelming shows of support for a new five-year contract with Greenwich Emergency Medical Services (GEMS) and the renomination of town resident Gary Dell’Abate to a new three-year term to the Board of Parks and Recreation. After both items set off debate in town, for different reasons, the votes ended up being blowouts with little discussion.

The five-year GEMS contract was approved by a 164 to 11 vote with two abstentions. GEMS, which is funded through both public and private money, has provided ambulance service to the town for more than 25 years and has been a strong priority of First Selectman Peter Tesei and other town officials. There have been calls from RTM members, though, to explore potential options, including potentially a private vendor, to see if the town is getting the best deal possible from the arrangement.

At Monday’s meeting, Gerrit Argento, a member of the RTM’s Town Services Committee, called for the town to do a “thorough review” of emergency services in town during the length of the new GEMS contract “to learn what options, if any, our town has.” He suggested the group doing this review could be made up of RTM members, town officials and people from GEMS.

“The town last did a thorough study of the GEMS’ operating model and financial situation in 1985 when it received 21 bids for emergency medical services,” Mr. Argento said. “It is now 29 years later and during those years there have been a lot of changes in the legal, financial, regulatory, medical and competitive environments.”

John Harkins, chairman of the Town Services Committee, said the purpose of all this questioning about billing, call volume, organizational structure and other areas was to insure the RTM’s funding of GEMS was being “used wisely” and that he believed putting all questions to rest would make things better for GEMS in the future.

“We’ve heard from no one that they are dissatisfied with the medical services — quite the contrary,” Mr. Harkins said. “We acknowledge that and expect to continue to do so. But questions cannot be ignored. To do so would be to call for the muzzling of good people from the RTM who give long hours to do what they are required to do.”

Mr. Harkins added that it made “good business sense” to have a working group or joint committee during the course of the five-year contract.

This comes after a proposed amendment last week before the Town Services Committee from Mr. Argento to only extend the GEMS contract one year so alternatives could be explored first. However, GEMS officials warned that could lead to uncertainty causing staff turnover and fund-raising issues that could decimate the organization and the plan never received a second. But, beyond just that committee, there was a push for more information.

“As we support a larger and larger piece of the GEMS contract we should become more and more involved,” Finance Committee Chairman Michael Warner said.

There are provisions in the new contract for GEMS to provide more detailed budget information. Additionally, Alexis Voulgaris, chairman of the RTM’s Health and Human Services Committee, said there were other areas that needed improvement, including how information from GEMS could be “enhanced” through more detail on budgets, organizational charts and head counts of full and part-time employees and comparative reference points to EMS services in other towns.

“We are not asking these questions with bad intent, we simply want a basis of comparison,” Ms. Voulgaris said. “We understand it might be impossible to do an apples to apples comparison, but some data is better than nothing.”

After the vote, John Raben, chairman of GEMS’ board of directors, told the Post that they were “delighted at another overwhelming show of support by the members of the RTM.”

“The vote of the full body is consistent with the unanimous votes in favor of renewing the GEMS contract in all the committees who looked at the issue,” Mr. Raben said.

He pledged that GEMS would “continue to be responsive” to questions raised about the organization’s structure and performance. However, Mr. Raben indicated there were concerns with a call for a study group.

“Any so-called study group, however, will create considerable uncertainty among the GEMS staff and the private donors who fund GEMS’ capital expenditures,” Mr. Raben said. “If any study group is formed it must first determine if there are in fact any alternative providers willing and able to maintain GEMS’ current level of service to the town with 24/7 coverage from four stations with seven dedicated state-of-the-art ambulances, 70-75% of calls responded to within five minutes, and a cardiac save rate five times better than the national average. We think no such alternative provider exists.”

Mr. Dell’Abate’s nomination received far less attention than it did three years ago for his first term but also did not proceed quietly. The longtime town resident, Mr. Dell’Abate is best known on a national level for his work as the producer of The Howard Stern Show, a role that has earned him the nickname “Bababooey.” When he was first nominated three years ago for the Board of Parks and Recreation, several RTM members worried publicly that this could lead to ridicule of the town by Mr. Stern’s show and also criticized the show’s often raunchy content.

This came up again last month when Mr. Dell’Abate was before the RTM’s Appointments Committee and, during a question and answer session, committee Vice Chairman Wilma Nacinovich reportedly criticized him because of his role on the show. This brought about an angry response from the Board of Selectmen, which had offered unanimous support for Mr. Dell’Abate, and a call for more civility from RTM members for volunteers for town boards and commissions.

At Monday’s meeting, however, Mr. Dell’Abate’s job was not brought up, only his highly praised first three years on the board. Speaking for the Appointments Committee, RTM member Tom Conelias spoke about Mr. Dell’Abate’s work establishing the board’s fields committee to improve the process allowing for use of town fields as well as his commitment to future work on improving the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center and an upgrade of fields and facilities at Greenwich High School.

Karen Sadik-Khan, chairman of the RTM’s Parks and Recreation Committee, also was effusive in her praise for Mr. Dell’Abate, calling him “very knowledgeable and very interesting to interview.”

“He has been instrumental in creating policy [on the fields committee] that gives preference to youth, non-profits and local teams for field use,” Ms. Sadik-Khan said. “He is also interested in the Cos Cob Park at the power plant site and has looked into possible partnerships for the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center and is working on dredging issues of the pond at Binney Park as well as dog park issues… Our committee was impressed with Gary’s knowledge of the issues facing the parks and recreation system in town. He has really taken to the board and is a true asset with his enthusiasm and dedication.”

Mr. Dell’Abate ultimately was approved by a 166-0 margin with one abstention. There was no actual debate over his nomination at the meeting though there was a spirited back and forth between RTM Moderator Thomas Byrne and District 8 Chairman Christopher von Keyserling, which is a frequent occurrence at meetings, over whether or not Mr. Dell’Abate’s nomination should have been included in the consent agenda, where voice votes are taken on items sure to pass.

This was the final meeting of the summer for the body and with the business of the RTM complete, Mr. Byrne wished everyone an enjoyable summer while also reminding the members and the public that work would resume.

“See you in September,” Mr. Byrne said.

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