Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli said he is awaiting a legal opinion from Town Attorney Frank Leanza and a labor attorney regarding whether Secaucus can reinstate three former volunteer firefighters who resigned in a hail of controversy in August 2008.
The attorneys are reviewing a written request by the members of the North End firehouse on Paterson Plank Road to reinstate Charles Snyder Sr., Charles Snyder Jr., and Charles Mutschler.
The request from Engine Co. 2/Rescue Co. 1 was sent to former Mayor Richard Steffens in December.
Though criminal charges were never brought against them, the three firefighters were implicated in alleged harassment against a gay couple who sued Secaucus and won a hefty judgment a year and a half ago.
Gonnelli is himself a volunteer firefighter and is close to the Snyders.
Gonnelli, himself a volunteer firefighter and deputy chief who is close to the Snyders, just became mayor Jan. 1.
Came up at council meeting
It isn’t clear how long it might take for a legal opinion to be issued.
The fate of Snyder Sr., Snyder Jr., and Mutschler came up at Tuesday’s Town Council meeting when resident Andrew Conti read a statement of support for the three men.
“This is a sensitive issue, but it needs to be addressed,” Conti said. “As a resident, I find it hard to take that three volunteer firefighters had resigned due to, in my opinion, pressure and charges brought against them due to a lawsuit…If the firefighters’ conduct was so outrageous at the time, then they should have been dealt with back then. I think we owe it to them to make sure the issue was handled properly and fairly without prejudice. I ask that the council look into the case, review all the information, speak with the three firefighters about bringing them back, and in the end, bring them back.”
After the council meeting, two observers bristled at the notion that the firefighters were victims. But Mayor Gonnelli said several residents have approached him and “have asked me to bring them back.”
Snyder Sr., Snyder Jr., and Mutschler resigned from the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department after a Hudson County Superior Court jury awarded Peter DeVries and Timothy Carter $2.8 million for harassment they said they endured while living next to the North End firehouse. The jury also awarded the two men $2 million for their legal fees. Throughout the case, Snyder Sr., Snyder Jr., and Mutschler were identified in testimony and police reports as allegedly having been involved in one specific attack in which insults and items were allegedly thrown at the men’s house.
After the trial ended, the men chose to resign rather than face an administrative hearing.
As a result of the judgment against Secaucus, the town’s insurers, who paid out the money awarded to the couple, required that the town improve the anti-harassment training offered to municipal volunteers.
Gonnelli has long argued that the investigation into the alleged harassment of the couple was botched. In the past he has stated that there is no hard evidence that the three men were guilty of the alleged harassment, and he believes Snyder Sr., Snyder Jr., and Mutschler became scapegoats after the town lost the court case.
There has been some speculation since the new mayor was elected that he would attempt to reinstate the three men, given his past support for them and his 35 years with the volunteer fire department.
Whether the three are reinstated or not, the possibility that they might be could reopen an old wound in Secaucus and embroil Gonnelli’s young administration in its first firestorm of controversy.