BY JENNIFER SOLIS
---- — WEST NEWBURY — It appears fire Chief Scott Berkenbush is the subject of an investigation by the state Ethics Commission.
The chief confirmed that he had been contacted by the state board about a possible conflict of interest related to the selection of the town’s new ambulance service, Cataldo-Atlantic, a company he began working for last year. But Berkenbush, who also serves on the Board of Fire Engineers, said he wasn’t aware of any actual complaint filed against him.
However, at a meeting Wednesday, Selectman Glenn Kemper seemed unconvinced of this assessment. “The Ethics Commission doesn’t just call people out of the blue,” he said.
The issue arose when Berkenbush filed a disclosure form for which selectmen, as the appointing authority for the Board of Fire Engineers, were required to endorse.
Non-elected municipal employees who have a financial interest in a company doing business with the town use the form.
Berkenbush said he was advised recently by Town Counsel Michael McCarron to file the form, which notes that he is a “full time paramedic” with Cataldo-Atlantic and they pay him an hourly wage. The form states that selectmen are required to sign off on the disclosure stating that they have reviewed the matter and determined that “the financial interest is not so substantial as to be deemed likely to affect the integrity of the services which the municipality may expect from the employee.”
McCarron acknowledged that ideally the form “should be done beforehand” -- meaning before selectmen agreed last October to transfer to Cataldo-Atlantic an existing contract it held with AMR, the town’s previous ambulance service.
But he felt as long as the appointing authority is made fully aware of the potential conflict and the form is filed as soon as possible, there shouldn’t be a legal issue for the town.
Selectmen Chairman Bert Knowles, Jr. reminded his colleagues that under state law the town is not required to go through a bidding process when selecting an ambulance service. But Kemper felt a bid process could have yielded the best deal for the town. He was bothered by the fact that his board never considered other potential ambulance services because of recommendations made by Berkenbush and the Board of Fire Engineers.
“We signed this contract under your guidance,” Kemper said to Berkenbush. He called for a stipulation to the form requiring the fire chief, in his capacity as Fire Engineer, abstain from any “discussions, deliberations or votes” that pertained to the ambulance service that employed him.
But Selectman Dick Cushing argued that the town benefits when Berkenbush’s years of experience working in the field can be added to these discussions.
Ultimately Knowles and Cushing voted to sign the form with no stipulations; Kemper abstained and requested copies of relevant minutes from selectmen’s and Board of Fire Engineer meetings.
At a meeting last August, Berkenbush and Dave Ledoux of AMR met with selectmen to discuss changes to the town’s ambulance service that were coming as a result of a planned downsizing at the ambulance company. At the time the two men recommended a plan that involved housing ambulances in Newburyport, Salisbury and West Newbury.
Ledoux said AMR would donate the ambulance. Berkenbush told selectmen that the 3-member Board of Fire Engineers approved of the plan.
But at a meeting on Oct. 24, Berkenbush returned before selectmen with fellow Fire Engineer Mark Hemingway and Stephen Cutter, who at the time was the fire chief in Newburyport. They discussed a new plan to have Cataldo-Atlantic take over AMR’s operations as of Nov. 15. Berkenbush contends that Hemingway and Cutter did the bulk of talking at that meeting, after which selectmen voted unanimously to extend the AMR contract to Cataldo- Atlantic. Kemper was not present for the discussion or the vote.
Following Wednesday’s meeting Berkenbush said the initial contact from the state happened “about a month ago.” He has spoken to the representative several times and provided some requested documentation. The ambulance service business is extremely competitive and it is not unusual for one company to file complaints about another. But he claims the representative from the Ethics Commission told him,” I wouldn’t worry about anything.”
Berkenbush says he was never required to fill out a disclosure form when he worked for AMR. He went through the same process of interviewing, testing and screening as other applicants for similar jobs do. As a professional paramedic with extensive experience, Berkenbush contends he was not concerned about finding another job once AMR disbanded. In fact, he notes, he took a pay cut so he could stay working in the same building he has been working in for the past 23 years.
Nine other AMR employees made the jump along with Berkenbush over to Cataldo-Atlantic. In West Newbury Fire Personnel Ben Jennell and Lisa Duxbury also work for the ambulance service, but only Berkenbush holds a seat on the Board of Fire Engineers.
Kemper denied a rumor that he may have been involved in dropping the dime on Berkenbush to the Ethic’s Commission. Although he has a “major problem” with the apparent conflict, “in no way was I involved in the complaint,” he insisted.