Hearings for six paid Port Chester firefighters against whom disciplinary charges have been filed and are still pending will begin Monday, Mar. 3 at 10 a. m. Meanwhile, their labor attorney is denying the charges and countering with accusations against the village.
Steers has declined to discuss the charges, saying it would be unfair.
‘These charges grow out of a period of time when there were only four available firefighters,’ Corenthal said. ‘Two were on leave for family issues and there was one retirement. We feel these charges are false, baseless and illegally motivated…and are in the process of filing improper practice charges with the New York Public Employment Relations Board.’
The charges, said Corenthal, ‘deal with scheduling issues that grew out of a severe manpower shortage which the village failed to address…For them to turn around and bring charges about this is frankly outrageous and in my years as a labor lawyer I haven’t seen anything quite like this.’ He said they related to the period of January and February 2013.
Steers responded that he couldn’t comment on the specifics. However, he added, ‘any attempts to paint a picture or to attempt to villainize or otherwise publically fault either party is just bad form and speaks volumes
about the character of whom attempts to do so. The village’s goal is to have a cooperative, functional and professional career firefighting force that works hand in hand with our volunteers. Unfortunately but necessarily this situation has arisen as we work towards that goal.’
As a result of the charges, four of the 10 career firefighters have been suspended without pay for 30 days or possibly longer ‘depending upon the opposing counsel’s availability and cooperation,’ said Steers. His goal is to have the hearings completed in 30 days.
Village Attorney Anthony Cerreto said a disciplinary hearing generally takes a week while Corenthal said ‘they could be extensive.’
Port Chester has retained Deborah A. Shapiro, LLC of New York City as the hearing officer at $1,100 per day plus travel expenses. The village has used Shapiro’s services in the past for two matters in the Department of Public Works.
The timing of these charges speaks for itself, Corenthal said. ‘They waited a year to bring these charges when contract negotiations are just getting off the ground.’ He also said two of those who have been suspended are the union president, Brett Lyons, and vice president, Sahnjai ‘Sonny’ Karnsomtob. The current three-year contract with the union expired May 31, 2011.
Steers countered that the investigation which led to the charges was complicated and lengthy and the village’s labor counsel ‘had to make certain that if charges were to be levied they would be accurate and specific to the violations enumerated.’ In addition, ‘real deliberation and planning was necessary to ensure continuity of operations and proper maintenance of public safety’ while the suspended firefighters are not working.
In addition, although the charges were ready to be filed during the holiday season, they were held off because Steers felt suspending individuals at that time, ‘although it was warranted, only breeds animosity that is not needed in an already tense situation.’
Attempts to learn more about scheduling from Port Chester Fire Chief Kevin McMinn were unsuccessful. He directed all questions to the village manager, even when it came to discussing who creates and oversees the paid firefighters’ schedules. ‘I’m not at liberty of talking about an ongoing case like that,’ he said.
Reached in Florida on vacation Wednesday, Mayor Neil Pagano, a volunteer firefighter himself, said depending on the outcome of the hearings, ‘we’ll see what the next steps will be.’ He said he wasn’t privy to all the detail of the charges but knew they were ‘sufficient for us to move forward’ and confirmed that ‘there are some issues that have to be dealt with.’
Steers commented last week that the village will likely go with the recommendations of the hearing officer.
With a 300+ volunteer force, Pagano feels the villages are well protected. Steers, he said, has met with Rye Brook Village Administrator Chris Bradbury ‘who is comfortable with the setup we have in place.’
‘We don’t see any interruption of coverage or protection,’ the mayor confirmed.
Rye Brook Mayor Paul Rosenberg said ‘it’s really more of a Port Chester issue. It’s their issue and I trust they are handling it appropriately.’ Rosenberg learned about it from Bradbury last week when the mayor was vacationing in Florida.
‘They are continuing to provide the coverage to Rye Brook and meeting all the terms of the contract, so I have no concerns whatsoever,’ said Rosenberg.
‘It is my understanding that as recently as Feb. 9 Port Chester was unmanned to cover Rye Brook for the night,’ claimed union labor attorney Corenthal, a fact that has not been corroborated.
Accusations that a Port Chester paid man is covering the Rye Brook firehouse from 7 p. m. to 7 a. m. as required by the contract for fire service between the two villages and leaving Port Chester fire headquarters without coverage have been made.
‘All attempts are made to maintain paid coverage in both areas,’ responded Steers. ‘If we are unable to for whatever reason, volunteers have stepped up to fill the gap.’
‘Any time they do have to respond, they do so fantastically, usually sending more firefighters than they need to which is a good thing,’ said Rosenberg about the fire service provided by Port Chester. ‘When Chris said there was an issue, I wanted to know if this was going to affect us and Chris said no, so that was all I needed to hear.’
In the past Pagano has broached the issue of an all-volunteer fire department. ‘It may be worth a conversation,’ he said this week, ‘but at this point it’s premature. I think time will tell and the board has to have time to address a host of issues and maybe that’s one of them, the main point being that we have to make certain there is no interruption of service or less quality of service and that we live up to our contractual obligations to Rye Brook.’