The Secaucus Town Council is expected to vote on a revised anti-harassment policy for its nearly 450 employees and municipal volunteers at a meeting this Wednesday – two years after losing a multimillion dollar civil rights lawsuit brought by two former residents.
The revised policy is expected to pave the way for an overhaul of the anti-harassment training currently offered to both municipal employees and volunteers, town officials said last week.
The revised policy and anti-bias training are the town’s latest attempt – this time by the administration of Mayor Michael Gonnelli, who took office in January – to address two problems exposed by the lawsuit.
“We’re lucky we haven’t had more lawsuits.” – Michael Gonnelli
‘Rights and duties’ in 12 minutes
Town officials have grappled with ways to limit exposure to lawsuits since losing a civil case brought by Peter DeVries and Timothy Carter in 2008. The pair is a gay couple who once lived on Schopmann Drive, next door to Engine Co. 2, the North End Firehouse on Paterson Plank Road.
In their lawsuit the men alleged that they endured two years of harassment from some of the firefighters assigned to Engine Co. 2 – harassment they said was reported to local police and other authorities. The harassment culminated in an incident in April 2004 in which, according to the men, violent threats and epithets were shouted outside their home. Witnesses heard something that sounded like a gunshot, and the couple said there was pounding on the side of the house.
No criminal charges were filed in the matter, but three firefighters were implicated in police reports and court testimony.
In June 2008 a Hudson County Superior Court jury awarded the men $2.8 million in damages, plus another $2 million in legal fees, because the jury concluded the town hadn’t adequately protected their civil rights.
The town’s insurance carriers paid out the judgment, with the Suburban Essex Joint Insurance Fund and the Municipal Excess Liability Fund (MEL) paying the lion’s share of the damages.
After losing the suit, the insurers demanded that the town improve the anti-bias/anti-harassment training offered to municipal volunteers. Dennis Elwell, who was mayor at the time, promised to make “immediate personnel and policy changes [including] sensitivity and bias prevention training for all municipal employees, beginning with the Fire Department.”
Although the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department constitutes the largest group of municipal volunteers, with 90 to 95 members, the mandate also affected about 40 Office of Emergency Management (OEM) volunteers. (Another 60 volunteers with the Department of Recreation were ultimately excluded from the mandate.)
Took a while
But it was more than a year before any new training was implemented.
In September of last year, the MEL produced a 12-minute anti-harassment video titled “The Rights and Duties of a Volunteer in Local Government,” which is now required viewing for municipal volunteers in Secaucus.
The video shows five actors discussing discrimination issues as they relate to municipal volunteers. The cast includes a “mayor,” a “volunteer fire chief,” the “head of the volunteer ambulance corps,” the “recreation director,” and a “municipal attorney,” who are all actors playing these roles and who are working from a prepared script.
Throughout the video, the mayor, recreation director, fire chief, and ambulance corps director shower the attorney with questions regarding volunteers in the workplace and harassment. The script is written to mimic a typical management meeting.
Without using the names of any specific towns, plaintiffs, or defendants, the cast members discuss harassment, discrimination, the rights of whistle-blowers, and related issues as they relate to volunteers, giving real world examples throughout the video.
According to town officials, the video has been shown to most of the town’s firefighters and OEM members. (It is possible that some recent recruits have not yet seen the video, town officials said last week.)
Gonnelli has been critical of the video, saying it doesn’t do enough to educate volunteers and protect the town from another lawsuit. But the mayor, a former Department of Public Works supervisor, and the current fire chief, has even been critical of the anti-discrimination training offered to town employees.
Full-time and part-time town workers already received on-the-job anti-bias training prior to the lawsuit. According to Town Administrator David Drumeler, supervisors receive training annually, while non-management staff get training every other year.
“I went through that training myself, and I can tell you, it was nothing,” Gonnelli said last week. “We’re lucky we haven’t had more lawsuits.”
Earlier this year, a Union City resident who was pulled over for a traffic violation in Secaucus by a local officer alleges that he called her, “An onion from onion city.” The woman, who reported the incident to the Secaucus Police Department and complained about the comment at a council meeting earlier this year, said she was seeking a formal apology. But the alleged incident could indicate a larger problem with the anti-bias training given to municipal employees.
At a special session scheduled for Wednesday, June 9, the Town Council will vote on a proposed anti-discrimination policy, which was drafted by Town Attorney Anthony D’Elia.
The policy, according to the mayor, will likely state explicitly that it is illegal for Secaucus employees and volunteers to discriminate based on race, creed, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, age, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or enlistment in the armed services. It will also include a formal complaint procedure.
Next, the council will have to decide who will craft the town’s new anti-bias training.
Paychex, the payroll service company that Secaucus recently began using, offers human resource services. Costantino said the town could hire a consultant through Paychex to craft and offer a training program. The councilman also wants to explore whether Secaucus’ labor attorney could develop the training as part of the professional service contract the town already has with the firm. D’Elia’s firm, Chasan, Leyner, Lamparello, could become involved, too.
At present, Costantino said the council does not know how much it will cost to revise and offer the training to municipal staff and volunteers.
“I have a friend who is a police officer in another town,” Costantino said. “When they do their harassment training, they use Secaucus as an example of what not to do…We want to turn that around so we eventually become the model for how to it right.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.