Web exclusive: Firefighters union files lawsuit against mayor, town employees

Fried calls the lawsuit ‘frivolous’

By: Lauren Burgoon
   WASHINGTON — Tempers are rising — and a lawsuit has been filed — over a possible consolidation of emergency services in town.
   The firefighters’ union, members of the International Association of Firefighters Local #3786, mailed a lawsuit to Mercer County Superior Court on Thursday alleging a "systematic campaign by the defendants to harass and intimidate" union members who oppose consolidation and the possible layouts resulting from it.
   The civil suit names as defendants Mayor Dave Fried, Township Administrator Mary Caffrey, police Chief Martin Masseroni, the fire district and fire Commissioners Peter Marsch and Greg Zalenski. Several of those named sit on an ad hoc committee established and appointed by Mayor Fried to study the effects of consolidation on taxes and public safety.
   Township Attorney Mark Roselli will defend the township employees named, while the fire district will employ its own attorney.
   Mayor Fried called the lawsuit "obviously frivolous" on Friday.
   "It’s an attempt by the union to discredit the committee before it makes a recommendation," he said.
   The mayor and union representatives, including firefighter Jason Palmer, verbally tussled at Thursday’s Township Council meeting. The union accused Mayor Fried of intimidating people who question the committee’s work and independence, while the mayor said the union is seeking publicity without working toward a solution to the fire district’s woes.
   The fire district is quickly becoming financially unstable with taxes set to increase 34 percent in two years. The mayor wants to explore bringing emergency services under township purview, which he said could save $500,000 to $1 million in taxes. The move would require police officers to receive cross-training in emergency medical service and could lead to layoffs from the fire squad.
   The ad hoc committee studying the issue has met twice with its last meeting on Tuesday night. The committee, which includes the mayor, police chief, Township Council members David Boyne and Ronda Hyams, Fire Commissioners Mike McGowan and Greg Zalenski, fire Chief Kevin Brink and Deputy Chief Chuck Petty, visited Monroe, which has a similar set-up as the committee is exploring.
   Work is continuing, Mayor Fried said.
   Meanwhile, firefighters have mounted two other legal actions in the matter. Local #3786 filed an unfair practice charge with the state Public Employment Relations Commission on behalf of Mr. Palmer, who will serve a 24-hour suspension without pay on Saturday for allegedly conducting union business on-duty. The union also filed a grievance with fire Commissioner Rob Hutchinson, who is in charge of fire district personnel. Mr. Palmer denies he was on duty when he hosted a television news crew at the fire station for a story on the consolidation.
Check out the Jan. 19 issue of The Messenger-Press for more in-depth coverage of the lawsuit, consolidation plan and reaction from township officials and firefighters.