NorthStar EMS admirably served Heber Springs and Cleburne County residents from 2000-2019 until they were unceremoniously kicked to the curb by the Heber Springs City Council in July 2019 and replaced by Survival Flight, an out-of-state-based air ambulance company that, at the time it was awarded the ground ambulance franchise, had no history of ground ambulance operations, had no ground ambulances in its inventory, and had no presence in Cleburne County. Why did this happen? The public doesn’t know because those council members who voted to install Survival Flight refused to share their insights with their own constituents, leading to a referendum and subsequent lawsuit to force the city to follow the law and obey its own ordinances.
In or around February 2019, Heber Springs Mayor Jimmy Clark placed newly-hired (July 2018) Fire Chief Jason Robitaille in charge of determining the city’s EMS future provider when the current franchise ended, even though Mr. Robitaille is not certified or licensed by the State of Arkansas as an EMT, Paramedic, or Firefighter. This statutorily prevents him from legally performing even the most basic firefighting and EMS functions in the city or county. Survival Flight owner Chris Millard said he was never interested in providing ground ambulance service until being approached by Mr. Robitaille. A check with surrounding counties’ EMS providers revealed that Mr. Robitaille failed to contact them to provide them the same opportunity to serve Heber Springs.
In the small City Council Room, at noon on Monday, July 8, the City Council held a required hearing (city ordinance requires a 10 day notice to public). City voters were not allowed to ask questions of their elected representatives and many people were turned away at the City Hall doors because of overcrowding. On July 25 another meeting was held and again city voters were denied their right to question their representatives as to what was transpiring. There was no discussion or debate before the vote was taken, proof that the members had made up their minds before the meeting. The resulting Council vote was 5-3 in favor of Survival Flight, violating the City’s own 1994 franchise requirements, those being:
• Required residency – “No franchise shall be granted to any person or persons whose ambulance business or operation is not located in the city of Heber Springs, Arkansas, including its main business office and ambulance headquarters”. Survival Flight did not maintain any physical office in Heber Springs and as of today its main business office remains in Mesa, Arizona.
• Equipment requirement – “A description of each ambulance or other vehicle used or proposed to be used by the applicant, with the name of the manufacturer, engine and serial numbers …” Survival Flight did not own any ground ambulances at the time it was granted the franchise.
After the City Council’s vote many city voters were incensed that their demands had not been heard. City voters signed and submitted a referendum petition demanding a vote on the ordinance and Mayor Clark, upon advice of City Attorney Terry Lynn, ignored those voters’ demands, claiming that the council’s action was administrative, making the referendum ineligible. A lawsuit was subsequently filed and on Nov. 15 Judge Holly Meyer ruled against the City and ordered a vote be held. The Arkansas Constitution states that once a referendum is referred to the people it shall be held in abeyance (as if the ordinance in question didn’t exist) until the election and once again the City refused to obey the law.
Judge Meyer again issued a stay order against the City and ordered the ordinance suspended. The City circumvented her ruling by passing another ordinance, without any public input or proposals, granting the franchise to Survival Flight again pending the Jan. 14 vote. NorthStar was the only legal option to the city after the lawsuit until the election.
Since the referendum petition process city voters have been harassed by their own elected officials for exercising their right to vote. City officials conducted several illegal meetings in violation of Arkansas Freedom of Information Act laws and have resisted divulging information pertinent to those meetings. Heber Springs elected officials stonewalled and fought its own voters and have only complied with the law after being forced to do so by legal authorities. It is time to hold City leaders accountable and to force them to be transparent in all aspects of this most important decision, one that affects the health and well-being of every citizen in Cleburne County. Vote YES on Jan. 14.