It could have all gone spectacularly wrong.
But today, the town of Manchester and the Northshire Rescue Squad are on a better footing now than they were six months ago. They have a one-year deal in hand, and a framework spelling out how to get to a long-term deal next year.
That’s a long way from where their relationship was six months ago.
The town and its Select Board, having hired a consultant to study the relationship, had concerns about cost — and complaints about what was perceived to be a lack of responsiveness from the Rescue Squad. And the Rescue Squad, an independent nonprofit group that serves Manchester and four surrounding towns, had its own concerns about the way the consultants reached those findings, and the way the Select Board made them public.
The consultants were suggesting the town go its own way and spend half a million dollars of federal pandemic aid on forming its own ambulance service. The Rescue Squad was resolute that it would continue operating, and cast doubts on the town’s ability to pull off such a plan. Divorce seemed to be in the air.
But then, both sides went back to the table, put in significant hours of work and got a deal done.
There are a number of reasons why that happened. But we think the biggest reason is that residents — some expressing gratitude that the Rescue Squad had saved their lives — told both sides to “figure this out and get a deal done.” And they were heard.
Imagine that: Government responding to the will of the people. It’s still possible.
For comparison, have a look at what’s happening in Brattleboro, where that town recently ended a decades-long relationship with its ambulance provider on short notice. Time will tell if the alternative chosen by Brattleboro’s leaders — a combination of a cheaper New Hampshire-based ambulance service and trained firefighters as backup — will work. But in the meantime, trading in a known quantity for an untested alternate plan has some folks on the other side of the mountains feeling nervous.
Some might wonder why the talks between the Manchester Select Board and the Rescue Squad board took place behind closed doors, and why the Select Board’s discussions about those talks were in executive session.
But as much as we embrace and demand transparency, we also recognize that effective negotiations often work best in private. That’s where both sides can speak freely without fear that their words will be misinterpreted, and when they can disagree without those differences becoming a confusing public spectacle. It removes the temptation to engage in public grandstanding and showboating that undermines the process.
What’s more, here in the Northshire, both sides were fairly open about the nature of discussions and offered public, broad-brush characterizations of those issues — a surprising degree of candor, as well as a sign that the two sides trusted each other.
Select Board Chairman Ivan Beattie, former Rescue Squad President Susan Howard and Rescue Squad Treasurer Jim Salsgiver were all frank in laying out their different perspectives on whether the deal should reflect Manchester’s needs to control costs and be heard as the largest of the five towns in the service area, or embody the Rescue Squad’s “all five towns are equal” operational standard.
The memorandum of understanding that accompanies the one-year contract reflects good faith efforts to acknowledge those philosophical differences and work them out in a way that benefits all. More important, it makes clear that the town and the Rescue Squad must keep the lines of communication open, and not let concerns and complaints fester.
A lapse in regular communication is what caused this disagreement in the first place. It’s wise for all of us to take note of that.