North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue – the fire department that covers five towns in Hudson County – spent an hour in closed session last week before announcing that the department will appeal a civil rights lawsuit that has taken away their ability to hire new firefighters.
The lawsuit was filed by four individuals along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 2007, saying the NHRFR does not hire enough minority candidates because it only hires from within the five towns. The towns are Weehawken, West New York, North Bergen, Union City, and Guttenberg.
Recently, a federal judge allowed the class-action suit to proceed, and gave the NHRFR an injunction against hiring.
According to published reports, the hiring freeze will remain until the residency requirements are broadened to include all of Hudson, Essex, and Union counties. A class as large as 872 African-American firefighters who passed a state administered exam from 1999 to 2006 would be eligible.
The judge said that only two of the department’s employees were African-American. According to the suit, fewer than 5 percent of the residents that make up the regionalized department are African-American. The suit claims the NHRFR “on a non-discriminatory basis” refused to recruit and hire African-Americans, and that they engaged in recruiting “a network of friends and relatives of current employees and other residents of the five municipality area.”
The four who applied
The suit states that Katrina Hall, Keith Reeves, Lamara Wapples and Al-Tarik White applied for entry-level positions at the department but were declined because of residency laws.
The department has not yet released a statement on their decision to appeal Judge Dickinson Debevoise’s ruling, because all five mayors must approve the statement first.
“Not to sugarcoat it, but if we can’t hire, we have overtime,” said NHRFR Chairperson and Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner at the meeting. “If the overtime goes through the ceiling, it creates budget problems, so we have several issues.”
‘A significant exodus’
NHRFR Capt. Brian McGorty responded to Turner by saying that the department is going to have to look at different ways of approaching the problem because of upcoming contract negotiations. He said that this summer, the firefighters’ contracts will be up, but more importantly, in 2010, officer contracts will be up.
In addition, he said, soon, 25 percent of senior personnel will be up for retirement.
“There will be a steady and increasing stream of departures,” said McGorty. “We need to deal with that.”
He said contract negotiations, especially in “this financial climate,” could be long and drawn out. Some people eligible for retirement, instead of undergoing negotiations for a year or more, may opt to retire. He said that the manpower of the regional department has already been “dwindling.”
North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue Association Vice President James Corso, speaking on behalf of President Dominick Marino, told the board that they were concerned about municipalities paying their monthly contributions and how the suit will affect their ability to respond to fires.
“[Marino] understands that the committee under the management of the department has put into place an aggressive schedule to replace apparatus with new and improved apparatus, but to remind the committee that the apparatus does not put out the fire or perform the rescues,” said Corso.
McGorty said that while the national standards for how many firefighters should be on a ladder or engine has “no teeth,” they would prefer more men on apparatus. He said that they would like to see five on a ladder and four on an engine, but there was a difference between what they would prefer having and “reality.”
“These are hard times in the department,” said McGorty. “Not just in New Jersey and not just in America.”
Not enough minorities
The current civil action suit against the NHRFR is not the first time the NCAAP has challenged municipalities in Hudson County. In 1996, when it sued North Bergen over its residency law to hire new police officers, a hiring injunction was put into place until a decision was made. A federal judge ruled that the laws did have an affect on African-Americans being hired in the department, and as a result North Bergen, agreed to hire officers off of hiring lists in communities like Jersey City.
Another suit was filed a few years ago, saying the NHRFR failed to promote Hispanic members as officers, but that was eventually dismissed.
McGorty said the NHRFR’s residency requirements were not done in a prejudicial manner.
“It just seems to be the way things are going with these suits all over [that] the ultimate goal is to strike down residency as a requirement statewide,” said McGorty. “We’re just a different minority-based situation here with the population being 80 percent Hispanic.”
At the North Bergen Commissioners meeting on Feb. 25, Town Administrator Christopher Pianese was formerly announced as a member of North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue’s board members.
Pianese served as the organization’s chief financial officer for the last nine years since the department was created. A few weeks ago, he sent a letter sent to board members saying he would resign March 1 because other than North Bergen and Guttenberg, municipalities were not staying up to date with their contributions and that this was causing a cash flow problem. A new CFO has not yet been chosen.
As an unpaid board member, Pianese is taking the place of Francis Bruno, who is a North Bergen M.U.A. employee. Pianese said that Bruno did a good job on the board, but that after speaking with Mayor Nicholas Sacco and other town officials, they decided Pianese would ultimately be a better fit.
“First and foremost, the board needs to recognize there needs to be a system put in place to collect funds that are due,” said Pianese.
He said that regional’s budget will be coming up soon for adoption, and that he believes he would be of assistance in making it cost affective. He said that while there is a dispute on how much the budget has gone up, it’s been a steady 5 percent since the department’s inception.
Pianese said that for the first couple of years of regionalization, the municipalities paid their own pension and health benefit costs in their own budget. When these costs were amended to NHRFR, the budget increased, but their municipal budgets decreased. – TT