The town's insurance carriers demanded such changes be made after a Hudson County jury awarded a gay couple a $2.8 million judgment, plus $2 million in legal fees, in June. In their lawsuit, the couple alleged that some volunteer firefighters stationed at a firehouse next to their home harassed them and violated their civil rights based on sexual orientation.
The town's insurers, Suburban Essex Municipal Joint Insurance Fund and the Municipal Excess Liability Fund, will have to shell out the bulk of the judgment amount if the award is not overturned on appeal. As a result, they are demanding that Secaucus give anti-bias training to municipal volunteers that is on par with similar training offered to town employees.
While the Town Council was divided over what the fate of the three firefighters should be, the governing body is united in recognizing the need for policy changes and improved sensitivity training for municipal volunteers.
Mayor Dennis Elwell has vowed that members of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department will be the first to receive the new training.
"The governing body will now meet to discuss this and, with the aid of our town administrator, we'll come up with a plan," said Mayor Elwell. "Then we'll meet with the current fire chiefs and, possibly, the captains so there's a clear understanding of what the new policy is. The insurance carriers will also have to approve whatever we come up with."
Discrimination law 'ever-evolving'
"We are working closely with the Joint Insurance Fund on coming up with a training for our municipal volunteers, which would include members of the volunteer fire department and volunteer organizations that we work with closely," said Town Administrator David Drumeler. "They'll probably get a very similar type of training that's already given to our municipal employees."
He added that every other year the town has an attorney who visits and familiarizes municipal workers with New Jersey's anti-discrimination laws and how to avoid getting into trouble.
The mayor and members of the Town Council also receive this training, Drumeler noted. The governing body received the training most recently in November 2007.
"A lot of it is very common sense stuff," Drumeler stated. "But the workplace is ever-evolving and what is appropriate and what isn't appropriate sometimes changes. You need to keep up to date on what the nuances of the current laws are."
By way of example, he added that if the gay men's lawsuit is not turned over on appeal their case will alter the interpretation of New Jersey's anti-discrimination law.
Situation not unique
Secaucus is not alone in re-examining its anti-harassment and discrimination training following a controversial incident.
Syracuse, New York, Mayor Matthew Driscoll recently called for improved sensitivity awareness training after a firefighter recruit tied a noose and showed it to five other trainees, including a black woman.
And Pasadena, California, is also revising its training policies after a black former firefighter won a $1.17 million harassment suit in December.
After the noose incident in New York, "Mayor Driscoll asked me to do an internal investigation to find out if this was something that was done out of ignorance, or something that was done maliciously. And we basically concluded that it was done out of ignorance," said Donald Thompson, director of personnel and labor relations for Syracuse. "The firefighter was disciplined, but not dismissed. And we used this as an opportunity to step up our diversity awareness training."
One change that was made, Thompson said, is that the anti-bias training now takes place at the beginning of the city's police academy and fire department training, rather than towards the end.
"With any sensitivity training you need to start with the specific needs of your municipality, and I recommend that towns do some type of a survey. The circumstances in [Secaucus] are different from those in Syracuse, and the circumstances in Syracuse are different from those in Pasadena," said Gary O'Bannon, a member of the International Public Management Association for Human Resources and the director of H.R. for Kansas City, MO.
Both Thompson and O'Bannon stressed the importance of getting the support of fire chiefs, captains, and others in leadership early so that the rank and file "buy in" to the training and its objectives.
Other Secaucus cases
While the recent discussions surrounding anti-harassment training have largely centered on the fire department and the lawsuit filed by the gay couple, other town employees and volunteers have been embroiled in harassment controversies of their own.
Town Councilman Michael Gonnelli and his wife, Linda Gonnelli, currently have an employment discrimination lawsuit pending against Secaucus, Mayor Elwell, and former Town Administrator Anthony Iacono.
According to court documents, the couple alleges that Linda Gonnelli was subjected "derogatory racial, ethnic, and sexual remarks throughout the course of [her] employment" in the police records room.
They further allege in court documents that this alleged harassment was "encouraged" by Iacono, a charge the former administrator has previously denied.
More recently, Town Councilman John Shinnick, who is employed at Hudson County Community College (HCCC) as vice president of human resources and communications, has been accused in a report of fostering an atmosphere of fear and intimidation at the school. The report, issued by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, states that some employees and job applicants are given preferential treatment over others.
In June, HCCC removed Shinnick as its affirmative action officer and reassigned those duties to another employee. (See related cover story.)
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