Last week, the Town of Groton rehired three of the four call firefighters it terminated this spring, immediately placed them on administrative leave, and summoned them to a “Strong Chief Law” employee termination hearing. The three-hour long hearing — without Fire Chief Steele McCurdy present — was conducted behind closed doors this Tuesday, October 28, in quiet Legion Hall, a good distance from possible interested bystanders at Town Hall or the Central Fire Station.
Former Groton Deputy Chief Clarence Jefferson and former call firefighters James Horan, Ben Miele, and Stephen Tervo filed suit in state court after they were terminated, alleging that town officials violated the state Strong Chief Law, state and Federal civil rights laws, wrongfully terminated them from their positions, interfered with contractual relationships (related to the firefighter’s job roles), and inflicted emotional distress upon and defamed the four firefighters. The seven count lawsuit named Groton Town Manager Mark Haddad, all five members of the Board of Selectmen, former Fire Chief Joe Bosselait, Fire Captain Susan Daly, and Fire Lieutenant Tony Hawgood (Daly and Hawgood are married) as defendants. The suit has moved to federal court at the request of attorneys for the town’s insurance company, which has taken the lead role in court.
The fourth firefighter, James Horan, was not rehired nor included in Tuesday’s hearing, possibly because he resigned from the Groton Fire Department this spring. At the time, he cited harassment related to his involvement with an attempt to unionize call firefighters as a primary reason to leave the force.
The rehiring and hearing process was apparently orchestrated by town counsel, the firm of Koppelman and Paige. Fire Chief McCurdy, who was not employed by Groton at the time of the terminations, referred all questions to town counsel, usually represented by attorney David Doneski. Members of the Board of Selectmen said the board had no role in the hearings, and Vice Chair of the BoS Anna Eliot could not comment because the matter involved pending litigation, she said. Chair of the BoS Josh Degen has recused himself from all actions by selectmen related to the firefighters and the lawsuit because he is called out by name as a defendant. Town Counsel Doneski did not return a phone call seeking comments.
Tuesday morning, as they waited for the hearing to begin, Jefferson, Tervo, and Miele joked that although they had received letters from the town saying they were employees that they have not been sworn in nor have they been appointed to their positions. The town invoked a never-before-used process this spring to terminate them, omitting their names from a list of fire department employees submitted to the Board of Selectmen for reappointment as employees. Under the state’s Strong Chief Law, terminations require a hearing or series of hearings, which did not take place before they were not reappointed. None has yet to receive back pay due them since July, they added.
The firefighter’s attorney, Rob Bowen, said that the hearings were unrelated to the lawsuit, which is continuing. He went on to state in a news release:
“These hearings do not change the basic allegations of the suit brought by four firefighters against the town of Groton. They were not public. Unlike Court, which will finally be a public forum, the firefighters are limited as to what they can say at this point substantively about these hearings.
“The town presented a single witness (Town Manager Mark Haddad — Ed.) who had no first hand knowledge of the events and allegations. Due to the procedures under which this hearing was held, the Town was not required and chose not to present any witnesses with first hand knowledge. If this were a Court of law, the Town would not have sustained its burden of proof. The firefighters testified, but they were not able to confront the witnesses against them as they will be able to in Court. Nor, in this forum, did they have the power to subpoena witnesses.
The Notice of the hearing did not fully explain the charges against them, as required by the Strong chief law. At the hearing, the firefighters learned, finally, what the allegations against them are. They categorically deny them. They denied them during the Town’s investigation. They denied them at these hearings, and they will deny and disprove them in Court.
Whatever procedural hurdles the Town may choose to throw at them next, they are confident that they will prevail. The truth is on their side. A decision regarding these hearings is expected in 21 days. In the meantime, the lawsuit continues, with a responsive pleading to the complaint from the Town due shortly.
The hearing officer, John Clifford, an attorney hired by the town and delegated to fulfill the role of the fire chief at the hearing, said that he would render an opinion within three weeks.