Ousted deputy fire chief considers lawsuit

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:46

    WEST MILFORD-The fate of former Fire Co. 2 Assistant Chief Michael Hughes could lie in the hands of lawyers rather than those of Mayor Joseph DiDonato. A brewing row between the dismissed firefighter and his former colleagues at the firehouse on Route 23 in Newfoundland has moved too slowly for Hughes' liking. Hughes has retained a lawyer in his attempt to win reinstatement. Hughes was suspended from his position on Oct. 5 but successfully appealed to the Fire Chief's Association which cleared Hughes of charges of gross negligence in the incident management system. Despite winning his appeal, the fire company refused to allow Hughes back, citing town rules which state only the Mayor can reinstate a suspended firefighter. This week, the Mayor wrote to company fire Chief Jeff Schnebelen advising Hughes should be reinstated. This was however solely on the suspension charge of Oct. 5 and did not take into account Hughes subsequent dismissal by the executive committee of the fire company. Hughes subsequently was barred from his former post on another allegation, made on Dec. 14. A fire company Executive Committee motion charged Hughes with having "a bad attitude and rule breaking." Hughes appealed to the Mayor on Dec. 15 to rule in his favor and elect to use DiDonato's power of reinstatement to secure Hughes his voluntary position back in the fire department. Hughes said of the Mayor's actions "It's a day late and a dollar short." Hughes said he will appeal again to the Chief's Association this time on his sacking. Hughes also admitted he had retained the services of a lawyer and would consider legal action. Chief Schnebelen denies Hughes' previous statement that his dismissal was due to personal differences saying "I personally did nothing to this firefighter except look out for the interests of the company." Schnebelen also said "The reason why he was kicked off, civilly, is because he was in charge of hall rental records and he changed the hall rental contract without permission from the trustees." Schnebelen also alleged that Hughes "had contracts that were missing and he was rude to people." Of the initial suspension volunteer firefighter Brian Rose said "When we had the fire on Pierce Road he blatantly disregarded the incident command system and he knew it as he had been trained on it as all our officers by law have to be." Although Hughes was cleared of the charges in an appeal, Rose maintains the appeal succeeded on a technicality "The Chiefs Association thought that our by-laws were too weak if he [Hughes] ever decided to take it to court." Hughes said his lawyer was now handling the matter. In a telephone conversation, Hughes responded to the accusations of Schnebelen and Rose but later requested his remarks be withdrawn. Fire Commissioner Ed Steines failed to respond to repeated requests for comment. Township Administrator Richard Kunze says "the mayor and I fully support our volunteer firefighters.  These individuals freely contribute a large amount of time to protecting their fellow residents and their job is often dangerous." Kunze also replied that "Despite occasional disputes such as the one involving Hughes, we are very confident that these dedicated people operate with the best interests of the residents in mind." Fire Co. 2 Chief Schnebelen commented that "The Mayor can say to Hughes ‘you can be a fireman' but he can't be one here and there's no court that will overturn that decision."