By Gregory J. Lamoureux
County Courier

RICHFORD: The County Courier has learned the Richford Selectboard voted on Wednesday to move ahead in creating a contract with AmCare to purchase the Richford Ambulance Service. No contracts have been signed, but the move is one step closer to the Town selling off the entire Ambulance department to a for-profit corporation.

Wednesday’s meeting was first warned by Board Chair Andy Derby who sent it to Richford’s Town Clerk, Kiley Deuso. Deuso then forwarded the email to the rest of the Board members, at 2:41 in the afternoon on Tuesday, but the agenda was not posted, at the Richford Town Hall, or the Richford Post Office, as other agendas have been in the past.

According to Deuso, Richford typically posts the meeting agendas in three public locations, as it is required by law. Those three locations are the Richford Town Hall, Richford Post Office, and Main Street Grocery.

Deuso said the agenda was not posted at the Town Hall because the door to the building is locked as a response to COVID. That didn’t stop the Town of Richford from posting the Annual meeting warning on the glass door- an option that was not utilized for Wednesday’s meeting.

The County Courier checked at the Richford Post Office as well as Main Street Market to see if the Agenda had been posted there.

At Main Street Market, there was nothing on the bulletin board, although it’s certainly possible someone took it down at some point on Thursday because it was old. As for the Richford Post Office, there were old minutes pinned to the bulletin board, as well as the Warning for Town Meeting, but no agendas for selectboard meetings.

Vermont’s Open Meeting Law requires the agenda for regular meetings to be posted publicly no less than 48 hours before the meeting is slated to begin.

As for special meetings, such as Wednesday’s meeting, the agenda must be posted no less than 24 hours before the meeting is set to begin- however it is also required for special meetings, to notify anyone who has requested to be notified of any special meetings.

The penalty for knowingly and voluntarily violating Vermont Open Meeting law- it’s a misdemeanor, punishable with a fine up to $500.

The County Courier has requested agendas from Richford, as recently as Monday afternoon, in an email to all Selectboard members, as well as the Richford Town Clerk and Assistant Town Clerk. This email was sent less than 24 hours before Wednesday’s warning was sent to other board members- however, the County Courier was never notified of Wednesday’s meeting. It’s unclear exactly how many other people have requested to be notified of meetings that also never received notice of the special meeting.

The only item on Wednesday’s special meeting agenda was “Executive Session – RAS contracted services.” RAS presumably referred to the Richford Ambulance Service.

Initially, Sherry Paquette, a member of the Richford Selectboard, said in an interview with the County Courier on Friday that the board met with AmCare on Wednesday instead of Monday because that is when the owner of AmCare, traveling from Maryland, was able to meet with the board.

That meeting was arranged no earlier than Saturday, which left no time for the AmCare official to quarantine for seven days, as is required by the Governor’s order. At the time, there was no provision for those who had been fully vaccinated, and travel without quarantine would only be allowed for “essential” business.

Paquette contended the board was all socially distanced, and everybody was safe.

Paquette said the Town of Richford has been working with AmCare as far back as six months ago. She also noted that they have had discussions with Enosburgh about the possibility of a merger.

As for why the meeting was held behind closed doors, Paquette said that it was to learn more about what AmCare could offer to the citizens of Richford.

“We haven’t made any decisions,” Paquette said unequivocally, “We are just looking at solutions.”

Paquette, who organized the meeting, said the board voted Wednesday to begin “contract negotiations,” with AmCare.

The County Courier confirmed with Paquette that the Wednesday meeting was not for contract negotiations. “Wednesday was not for negotiations. It was just for to present information,” she said.

“We’re just trying to do what’s best for the Town,” Paquette said, “for our employees and our Town. We’re trying to improve things where things might need some extra help, and the ambulance, right now needs extra help.”

Paquette said that since NOTCH stopped providing the management and oversight of the Ambulance Service, the service has had issues.

“I don’t want my taxes to go up,” Paquette said, “The school’s already raising our taxes.”

In actuality, the Richford-Enosburg Unified Union School District’s warned budget has Richford school tax rate decreasing, as it did a year ago.

Vermont’s Open Meeting law does not provide for a board to go into executive session for information, only for contract negotiations.

As Chair of the Richford Selectboard, the County Courier reached out to Derby on Thursday afternoon to find out more information on Wednesday evening’s meeting.

Initially, Derby said he was not interested in speaking with the newspaper, saying that he thought he wouldn’t be treated fairly if he did.

The County Courier then asked outright if the Town would be selling the Ambulance Service. Derby replied, “I’m not answering that.”

A clarification to Derby that the word circulating was that the Town was selling the Ambulance Service to AmCare, asking for a yes or no answer to if that was true. He did not answer that question either, instead of saying, “We need to, as a Town, do what we wanna do. At this point, I’m not going to let [the County Courier] hinder anything.”

SEE RELATED:Richford Selectboard Transparency in question as citizens raise procedural issues

Derby denied that the Town is required to send any special meeting agendas to anyone other than members of the board.

“Any agenda that we post, goes out on our Town website,” Derby said, “I don’t make the agenda.”

The County Courier clarified with Derby his position that he does not make the Agenda. He confirmed that was the case, and that he does not send out the Agenda.

However, through a records request, in the email notifying members of Wednesday’s meeting, the thread indicated that it originated with Derby. He sent it to Deuso, who then forwarded it to the members of the Board.

Deuso confirmed on Thursday that she does not make the Agendas, she only forwarded it to members of the board after Andy sent it to her and asked her to do that.

The County Courier asked by Derby why he didn’t send the agenda to the newspaper as it had been requested on Monday.

“You’re no different than anybody else,” Derby said, “We have a Town website. You can go there and find the agenda there.”

The County Courier pointed out that not notifying people who have requested to be notified of special meetings, violates Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.

“I am the chair of the Selectboard in Richford for only two more weeks for reasons like this,” Derby said emphatically, “Things seem to be going pretty good, and then you put articles in the paper that’s not true. You take information from people on the Ambulance Service, spin it around to write it the way you want to write it, and people get the wrong impression.”

“I’m not answering any more questions,” Derby said, “I’m declining an interview. If you want to put it in the paper that I am declining an interview, put in the paper that I declined an interview.”

The County Courier once again asked Derby if there was any result from Wednesday evening’s meeting, “When we post the minutes, we’ll send you a copy of the minutes.”

Derby hung up the phone after the question was asked again, ending the roughly three minute call.

Derby called back about three minutes later. Derby appeared to be on the other end of the line, but without identifying himself, he expressed his displeasure with two words, the first being an expletive.

Through a records request made to all five board members, as well as the Town Clerk and Assistant Town Clerk, the County Courier learned that Paquette initiated the conversations with Amcare on February 12th.

The records request asked for all communication relating to the Richford Ambulance Service within the past 90 days.

The one email thread between Paquette and Clement Roger of Amcare was the only email Paquette said she had relating to the Ambulance Service.

In the sole email provided to the County Courier, Paquette tells Amcare that Andy Derby has been managing the service, and since he is no longer going to be a selectboard member, he would be stepping aside from managing the Ambulance Service.

“He is getting off the selectboard in March, so before then we would like to have a meeting if possible with [Amcare] to see if [the Richford Ambulance Service] is something you guys are interested in,” Paquette wrote. “Can we please have a meeting this coming week as soon as possible before we change over of the selectboard members.”

Paquette continued with her email, “Bringing in two new [selectboard] members is already a chore, so to get this off our plate before then would be nice, but at this point, it’s just talking about pricing, and see what is possible.”

The representative from AmCare responded to Paquette later on the 12th, saying “We will be glad to entertain a conversation with you and the rest of the board. Let me know what day and time, and I will make every effort to accommodate you.”

On Saturday, February 13th, Paquette asked if AmCare would be available on Wednesday, February 17th, at 6:00- offering to either meet in person or via Zoom.

No mention of the special meeting was made during Monday’s regularly scheduled Richford Selectboard meeting.

AmCare could have attended Monday’s regular board meeting, had that been the request from Paquette. By law, the Board could have made any adjustments to the already scheduled meeting on Monday as the first order of business. Instead, they choose to invite AmCare two days later and hold a special meeting to discuss their plans.

Since Derby was unwilling to provide any information on Wednesday’s meeting, the County Courier reached out to Vice-Chair of the Board, Linda Collins.

Collins said she had been kept in the dark about any discussions with, or about AmCare between the summer of 2019, and the calling of Wednesday’s meeting. No action was taken at the meeting in the summer of 2019, Collins said.

The question of even selling the Ambulance Service to another for-profit or non-profit entity is likely going to stall anyway. The Richford Town Charter, approved by the Vermont Legislature in 1997, which went into effect on January 1st, 1999, says in part, “The Richford Ambulance Service shall be owned and operated by the Town of Richford under the supervision of the Selectboard…”

A screen capture of an email circulating through social media indicates that the Board has requested a “MANDATORY” meeting with all Ambulance personnel on Sunday, presumably to discuss the sale of the Ambulance Service.

That meeting is slated to begin at 3 pm, and no electronic means for access has been provided to those EMTs being requested to attend.

The agenda for Sunday’s meeting had also not been posted on the Town’s website as of 3 pm on Friday, the last business day before the Sunday meeting.

As for Wednesday’s meeting, the discussion the board had took place behind closed doors. The minutes, once released, won’t reflect any of that discussion.

Richford is not the only ambulance service that’s in the spotlight with a possible purchase from AmCare. We’ve learned that at least one member of the Enosburgh Selectboard also met with AmCare officials on Wednesday in regard to selling the Enosburgh Ambulance Service. That meeting, we are told, did not have enough board members to make Quorum, so it’s likely that didn’t break any of the State’s Open Meeting Laws.

“We’re just kicking tires,” Pierre Letourneau said, who is the Vice-Chair of the Enosburgh Selectboard. “Everything’s for sale for a price,” he added.