Fort Mill Times: Find the right balance for rescue squad service

February 19, 2013 

Some people were upset last week after the York County Council again delayed making a decision on a proposed new contract to regulate ambulance service. Local, not-for-profit rescue squads were not among them.

The volunteer EMTs, who have the same training and qualifications as their for-profit counterparts and work for organizations formed years ago to fill a void for underserved areas, rightly don’t want to be pushed aside in favor of the commercial outfits. More important, they say, is working out an arrangement that encourages the fastest response times and eliminates a situation in which multiple squads essentially race to calls because the first one on the scene gets the patient.

We agree.

Also important is allowing the commercial EMTs connected to area hospitals, including for-profit Piedmont Medical Center, a fair opportunity to answer calls. For hospitals like PMC, all services have to be considered as a business decision and that’s not unreasonable. Hospitals and their ancillary offices, including several with a presence in Fort Mill Township, are major employers, taxpayers and community partners and it’s in everyone’s best interest that they succeed financially.

Eventually, Fort Mill will have a hospital of its own and it will add more ambulances to the mix. An equitable, common sense approach to deploying EMTs needs to be in place by then.

The latest proposal under consideration by the county council works off a map that segments towns and cities from unincorporated areas. Service inside city limits would require an eight-minute response time; outside, it would be 12 minutes. That means a large portion of our area would get the slower response time.

A plan that’s acceptable for everyone should have a uniform response time and if anything, it should be closer to the eight-minute mandate.

“The fight is about providing the best ambulance response for our families, neighbors, friends and coworkers,” said Dick Mann, president of River Hills/Lake Wylie EMS. It’s hard to imagine anyone would disagree.

Councilman Michael Johnson, who represents a large part of the township, voted in favor of delaying the decision and indicated it’s possible the public will have more opportunities to go on record with their opinions and concerns. We hope so.

When it comes to emergency calls, there’s plenty of work for all. The tricky part is finding the right balance. The county council was right to put off a decision. It’s a critical issue and one in which it’s more important to get it right than to get it done fast.

The sad fact is that some South Carolina governmental agencies and officials don’t want people to know what they’re doing, how they’re spending taxes and who’s giving them money. Also, sad to say, the mindset at some public agencies is that their convenience comes first and the public’s right to know how its business is being conducted comes later.

So it is heartening that a subcommittee of the S.C. House Judiciary Committee on Thursday gave its OK to a bill intended to stop some of those abuses.

Last year, the House approved a similar bill that died in the Senate.

Both chambers should acknowledge that the present Freedom of Information Act has weaknesses and approve this reform bill as a good step toward strengthening the law.

Some agencies and officials get it right. They respond to requests for information quickly and completely.

But others have assigned absurdly high price tags for filling such requests, and have obfuscated and dragged their heels as long as possible.

The bill in question, by Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, would require faster response to FOI requests and prohibit public bodies from charging citizens more than it costs to copy requested documents.

The legislation also sets up an appeal process for both citizens and public bodies through the Administrative Law Court. Currently, a citizen must hire a lawyer and take his appeal to circuit court, a costly and slow process.

Two examples of how that administrative court might be used: Susan Herdina, a lawyer for the city of Charleston, told the subcommittee that an out-of-state corporation, wanting to gain a business edge, asked for information about money paid to city vendors. Lawyers, she said, fish for time-consuming information to help their cases. If Rep. Taylor’s bill passes, the city could dispute those requests in court, just as citizens could ask the court to make public bodies comply with the FOI law.

A spotlight has been focused on ethics in South Carolina government. The people have made it clear that they want an ethical government. Committees are discussing how the laws should be adjusted to eliminate unethical behavior.

Vital to keeping public officials honest is making them accountable. And the way to make them accountable is to have accurate, complete information about the way they handle public business.

If anything, the Freedom of Information bill being proposed doesn’t go far enough. Legislators are not required to release their official email correspondence. They should be.

But Rep. Taylor’s bill would do some real good, and the Legislature should support it.

Unless they have something to hide.

From the Post and Courier

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