Sometime around noon on Tuesday, Mayor Michael Gonnelli probably thought he had extinguished most – perhaps even all – of the controversy surrounding the possible reinstatement of three embattled former volunteer firefighters.
The three firefighters had resigned in 2008 after being implicated in an alleged bias crime against a gay couple who lived next door to the firehouse where the men were stationed.
Hours before Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting, a statewide gay rights group was tipped off that that one of the former fighters was going to receive a promotion on his municipal job, and members of the group showed up at the meeting to protest.
“This item was not included on the consent agenda I received last Friday.” – John Shinnick
Snyder has for years been the assistant supervisor of the DPW and was in line to become head of the department in 2007 when Gonnelli retired from the position. After Gonnelli left, however, former Mayor Dennis Elwell restructured the department and did not promote Snyder.
Independent Town Councilmen Gary Jeffas, Rob Costantino, James Clancy, John Bueckner, and William McKeever – allies of the mayor – joined Gonnelli in voting in favor of the promotion.
Third Ward Town Councilman John Shinnick, the lone Democrat on the council, was the only member of the governing body to vote in opposition.
“This man has a clean personnel record, not one thing in his personnel record,” Gonnelli said during the vote. “To begrudge a man, who has been in a position since he was 17 years old, and doing a great job, to begrudge him a promotion is a shame.”
The fire department issue has been resolved, he added, since the former fighters spoke with him the previous day and said they do not wish to be reinstated “at this time.”
“You want to go after him as a firefighter, fine,” Gonnelli said, addressing members of the group. “He’s no longer a firefighter. As far as his job and his livelihood, he does a fantastic job.”
The promotion became effective on Jan. 27 and he received a $15,000 salary increase. His new annual salary will be $119,271 through December 2012.
The gay couple, Peter DeVries and Timothy Carter, who no longer live in Secaucus, have testified that they endured two years of anti-gay harassment at the hands of a few members of the Fire Department. This harassment, they claimed, culminated on one night in 2004 when items were thrown at their home, epithets and threats – including a death threat – were shouted outside their house in the middle of the night.
In 2008, a jury in Hudson County Superior Court awarded them $2.8 million, on top of another $2 million for legal fees.
Snyder was never arrested or charged in the incident, but he and two other firefighters – his son, also named Charles Snyder, and Charles Mutschler – were accused in the harassment in police reports and court testimony. During the trial, the men took the stand, but on the recommendation of their attorney, took the Fifth Amendment. When the trial ended, the firefighters were supposed to have a closed administrative hearing. They chose to resign from the department rather than face the hearing.
Despite Snyder’s spotless record with the DPW, gay activists and some residents believe his alleged involvement in the 2004 incident makes him unfit for a senior supervisor position, where he will have a hand in raises, promotions, discipline, and other sensitive personnel matters.
The 2004 incident and the ensuing court case had largely dropped off the community’s radar until three weeks ago, when it looked like Snyder, Snyder, and Mutschler might be returning to active duty with the Volunteer Fire Department.
It was at the Jan. 12 Town Council meeting that Mayor Gonnelli revealed that two attorneys were considering a request by members of the North End firehouse to reinstate the three men. News of the possible reinstatement traveled fast. New Jersey’s gay/lesbian community, which had followed the trial, was angered.
“It’s astonishing that this saga still exists. These men costs the town $4.8 million,” said Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality, a statewide gay rights organization, to the Reporter. “First, they were being considered for reinstatement. Then we find out that Charles Snyder is getting a promotion and a $15,000 raise. It is a privilege to be a civil servant, not a right. And this man does not deserve that privilege, that honor.”
Tuesday night, Goldstein brought between 30 to 45 angry activists to the Town Council meeting to protest the promotion.
Attorney and Secaucus resident Nina Remson, who attended the meeting in support of Garden State Equality read a lengthy excerpt from the trial transcript in which a witness recalled some of the alleged statements made to DeVries and Carter. “I’m here to express my outrage,” Remson said. “To now promote [Snyder] and reward him for this behavior is sickening. It’s an insult, not to just gay and lesbian people living in this town – and yes we do live here – but to every single person in this town. It’s an embarrassment. And it’s a liability.”
Mayor: No link
Several other residents, however, expressed support for Snyder.
Resident David Heintjes, who is also an attorney said, “I have no dog in this race. I come here tonight concerned. There men have given years and years of service to this town [as volunteer firefighters. So why we’re villainizing them or trying to bring their employment into their volunteer service doesn’t make any sense.”
Gonnelli agreed He was surprised that Goldstein and his group were angry about Snyder’s promotion when it was the reinstatement issue that had initially riled them.
“The initial concern was the firefighters being reinstated,” the mayor said after the council meeting. “Everybody knew Mr. Snyder was up for this promotion. He was promoted back in 2006, and nobody raised any objections back then.”
Gonnelli said he sees no link between Snyder’s work as a firefighter and his work for the DPW.
He agreed that better anti-harassment and sensitivity training is needed for all municipal volunteers and employees, and he promised to get Goldstein’s input into whatever training program is put together.
The day after the council meeting, Gonnelli and Goldstein spoke by phone and further discussed ways Garden State Equality can help the town craft more comprehensive sensitivity training for municipal employees and volunteers.
Didn’t know about promotion
But Councilman Shinnick disagreed.
“Mayor, you ran on a platform of transparency in government,” he said during the meeting, addressing Gonnelli during the meeting. “I was handed [the resolution regarding Snyder’s promotion] at 6:05 this evening...I don’t know how extensive the posting was for this position. There’s been much made about how extensive we were going to post for positions. In the past, this [members of the] council has complained that they’ve not been informed of things. Well, this councilman was not informed of this resolution.”
Three candidates, including Snyder were considered for the job.
Shinnick also questioned whether Snyder should hold a senior supervisory position.
“He and the other two gentlemen had an opportunity to clear their names, say what happened that night, and put this thing to rest,” Shinnick told the Reporter. “They chose not to do that. I have many questions about what happened, and without that information, I don’t feel comfortable with this promotion.”
Gonnelli and his allies claimed that Shinnick knew Snyder was being considered for a promotion weeks ago when the new mayoral administration decided to reorganize the DPW.
“This posting, as well as several other posting, were approved by this entire council, including Councilman Shinnick,” the mayor responded. “We said we could discuss the interviews that were conducted by our town administrator and that’s what we did. It was very transparent from day one.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.