It cost town insurers millions of dollars. It cost taxpayers several thousands more in legal fees for an independent inquiry. It cost three men their positions in the local volunteer fire department. And it cost two former Secaucus residents their sense of safety and security in the community.
But the long unpleasant saga involving a gay couple who once lived in town and a group of Secaucus Volunteer Firefighters may now finally be put to rest.
After a seven-month independent inquiry into an alleged 2004 incident of anti-gay harassment involving former firefighters Charles F. Snyder, his son Charles T. Snyder, and Charles Mutschler, the council has decided not to reinstate the trio.
This decision, council members hope, will conclude speculation surrounding the incident, in which gay couple Peter DeVries and Timothy Carter said they endured violent threats and other harassment at the hands of firefighters assigned to the North End firehouse, which was next door to their home.
Local taxpayers could end up paying $10,000 or more for a report they’ll never see.
However, since the 2009 election of Mayor Michael Gonnelli, a fellow member of the fire department and once close to the Snyder family, the men and their supporters have lobbied for reinstatement.
Fire put out
Speaking collectively through Town Attorney Anthony D’Elia, Secaucus’ Town Council on Tuesday announced that the three firefighters will not be reinstated to the fire department.
“Because the current [mayoral] administration was not in office when this incident took place, we felt it necessary to retain the services of [an] attorney to conduct an independent review of that matter,” the town attorney stated. “We sought advice and counsel from an impartial, unbiased outside entity with no preconceived view of either the events that had taken place or what conclusion should be reached. That review has been completed and a report has now been issued. This evaluation concludes that it is not in the best interest of the town to restore these individuals to their former posts. For…reasons discussed in executive session, we will abide by the conclusions of the report.”
After D’Elia completed the statement, there was a smattering of brief applause from a few community members at the meeting. About 30 residents attended the council meeting, including a handful of Secaucus firefighters.
In further discussing the council’s decision not to return the ex-fire fighters to the department, D’Elia said during Tuesday’s meeting that the attorney who conducted the inquiry also “contacted the Joint Insurance Fund [which insures 385 municipalities in New Jersey]. He discussed this issue with a number of high ranking representatives from the JIF to get a feel of the insurance implications if the firefighters were reinstated. The representatives of the JIF felt that the other 384 towns might have a negative reaction to sharing any future litigation risks with Secaucus if the firefighters were reinstated.”
D’Elia added that the Gonnelli administration could also be sued if it tried to void the agreements the men signed in 2008 stating that they would not seek reinstatement.
Reached by cell phone the day after the news was publicly announced, the elder Snyder, who works full-time as the superintendent of the Secaucus Department of Public Works, said, “I don’t want to comment,” when asked if he had anything to say about the council’s decision. He hung up before a reporter could ask whether his son might want to comment on the matter.
Former plaintiffs Carter and DeVries released a joint statement on Wednesday sent via email in which they said, “We won this case three years ago and justice was served…[We] give thanks every day for [attorneys] Neil Mullin, Nancy Erika Smith, and all our legal team at Smith Mullin of Montclair, New Jersey.”
The three firefighters had been informed of the inquiry’s conclusion and the governing body’s decision the day before the public Town Council meeting. All three men had been invited to meet with the council in a closed-door session held on Monday, Feb. 7. Two of the firefighters attended that meeting; the third did not participate, according to D’Elia. Although the Monday meeting was closed to the public because personnel matters were discussed, several members of the North End firehouse showed up at Town Hall in support of the men. One firefighter described the supporters as vocal and “angry,” although this characterization was later disputed.
Upon learning earlier on Monday they would not be reinstated, the men contacted council members individually by phone or in person to plead their case, to no avail. The council’s decision against reinstatement had already been made the week before, on Feb. 1, in a closed meeting that included attorneys from the New Jersey Commission on Civil Rights and Edward DePascale, the attorney the town commissioned to conduct the independent inquiry.
“We’re determined to put this behind us and move forward,” Gonnelli said Wednesday.
Report withheld from taxpayers
As reported last week, the results of DePascale’s inquiry, including a written report he submitted to the Town Council last month, have not been publically released. Claiming the report contains sensitive personnel information, D’Elia has stated it will not be released without the specific consent of all three firefighters, consent the men are not likely to give.
“The report focused on the three firefighters…It deals with issues related to their employment while they were employees here,” the town attorney said after Tuesday’s meeting. “So they have total control over whether it can be released publicly. We have to honor their confidentiality.”
Their confidentiality must be maintained, D’Elia added, even though the three men were volunteers.
“To be personnel you don’t have to be paid,” he said. “The reason why the [town] had to pay $4.8 million is because New Jersey law is considers them to be under the control and retention of the public entity. They’re not technically employees in that they get a salary. But the law says a volunteer fire department is considered to be representatives of the town, under the retention of the town, under the control of the mayor and council.”
According to Town Administrator David Drumeler, last year Secaucus taxpayers paid $7,875 to McElroy, Deutch, Mulvaney, DePascale’s law firm. Since DePascale continued to do work on his report this year, and attended three meetings in town to discuss his conclusions, additional attorney fees for his time have yet to be billed. Local taxpayers could end up paying $10,000 or more for a report they’ll never see.
Last year when the council commissioned the independent inquiry, Gonnelli said its results would be made available to the public, a commitment that was made in the presence of the town attorney.
However, in the weeks since the report was given to the council, the mayor has stated he hadn’t been aware that legally the report couldn’t be made public.
“I would like nothing more than for the report to be made public, and I said it would be,” Gonnelli said recently. “I didn’t know our lawyer would tell us we couldn’t release it.”
Even if the report were to be released, it’s likely that much of its content would be redacted.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.