Three volunteer firefighters who were allegedly involved in an April 2004 bias attack on a gay couple were served with papers detailing administrative charges against them on Wednesday, July 16.
A month ago, the gay couple won a $2.8 million lawsuit against the town after alleging that firefighters assigned to the North End Firehouse harassed them while they lived next door. The town is also required to pay the couple’s $2 million legal fees.
Now, the town is taking disciplinary action against three firefighters who were identified at the trial as allegedly being involved in the attack.
On July 10, the Town Council met in closed session and voted that the men should be removed from the department, pending an administrative hearing. Not all of the councilmen, however, voted to terminate them from the department.
The three firefighters – Charles Snyder Sr., Charles Snyder Jr., and Charles Mutschler – now have five days to respond to the charges, which were not made public. As of press time, the men did not yet have legal representation.
Once they have responded to the charges there will be a special hearing with the men and Secaucus’ labor attorney, who will make a recommendation regarding disciplinary action.
The Town Council, which has ultimate authority over the all-volunteer fire department, is not bound to follow the labor attorney’s recommendation.
Discipline v. policy changes
In response to the legal judgment, the town’s insurance carriers are demanding that Secaucus come up with administrative policies to shield itself from similar lawsuits in the future.
Believing the town blew the opportunity to mete out administrative discipline, some members of the Town Council said last week that the town’s best course of action now is to focus on strengthening Secaucus’ anti-discrimination training and policies.
“The town was sued,” said Town Councilman Michael Gonnelli. “These three guys [themselves] weren’t sued. It was the town that was found liable. So we should be focusing on policy changes at this time, not disciplinary action.”
These comments marked the first public statements Gonnelli – a deputy chief of the fire department – has made since the jury reached its verdict five weeks ago.
“If they wanted to discipline the people involved, my question is, why didn’t they do it back in 2004 when this incident [allegedly] took place?” asked Gonnelli. “I read the trial transcripts. There was no new evidence presented at the trial. Everything we know now was known in 2004.”
He speculated that Mayor Dennis Elwell might have been reluctant to discipline members of the fire department because many volunteers were friends with the mayor and were among his biggest supporters.
Gonnelli was a member of the department in 2004. However, he was not in an elected leadership position at that time, either with the Fire Department or the Town Council.
Mayor Elwell responds
The Town Council held two closed caucus sessions on June 23 and July 10 to discuss the outcome of the lawsuit and possible disciplinary action against the Snyders and Mutschler. According to several sources, much of the discussion broke down along factional lines, with Gonnelli and his allies pushing for policy changes, while Mayor Elwell and his political allies advocated discipline on top of policy changes.
Since the trial ended in June, Mayor Elwell has argued that the decision not to pursue disciplinary action sooner was based on law enforcement agencies, the town’s legal counsel, and insurance carriers.
“The truth of the matter is, within two days [of the incident], we were informed by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office that they were taking the investigation over and that we were not to do anything,” Elwell stated. “About a week later, we were informed that the State Attorney General had taken over the case and would be convening a grand jury. Again we were told to stay out of it. Quite frankly, under those terms we were forbidden [to take action].”
Elwell went on to explain that by the time the grand jury proceedings ended the two plaintiffs, Peter DeVries and Timothy Carter, had filed their civil lawsuit against the town. (No one was indicted by the grand jury.)
Any disciplinary action taken against the firefighters could have been admitted as evidence at the trial, Elwell said.
“At that point, our insurance carriers asked us not to do anything,” Elwell said. “So all along we were being guided by our attorneys and insurance carriers.”
Town Councilman Gary Jeffas, a Gonnelli ally, questioned why the town failed to address the need for policy changes sooner.
“The mayor says we couldn’t take action. That’s simply not true,” Jeffas stated. “The town could have developed administrative policies before the trial. I don’t know of any agency, or prosecutor, or attorney that would have said, ‘Don’t change your policy.’ The town had more than four years to take action. We’re doing it now, but only as a reaction.”
Firefighters’ rights violated?
Gonnelli also disputed Elwell’s comments, stating that any firefighters found to be involved in the April 2004 incident could have been disciplined by the fire chief. However, Gonnelli said there was no internal investigation conducted by the Volunteer Fire Department because the matter was taken away from then-chief Frank Walters. He said the day after the incident, a decision was made that the local police would investigate the matter instead.
It’s unclear why the police and fire departments were prohibited from conducting simultaneous investigations, which is not uncommon in such cases. Jeffas said that disciplining the firefighters now could eventually lead to new legal trouble.
“I have a big problem with the way we are proceeding with this,” said Jeffas, who is an attorney. “One of my main issues is the appeal. We’re going a route that’s going to create further record on this matter. If this thing ends up getting retried, we are creating a public record that is discoverable. So we could potentially be opening up the town up to even more liability. We didn’t get hit with punitive damages this time around. But if this is retried we might find ourselves having to pay punitive damages down the road.”
He added that if the town ultimately decides to boot Mutschler and the Snyders from the Fire Department, and Secaucus wins its appeal, the firefighters could argue that their rights were violated and that they were wrongfully terminated.