TONIGHT: Angry Leonia residents are mobilizing for a 7:30 meeting during which the Borough Council is expected to introduce a measure that would eliminate the town’s 115-year-old volunteer fire company and force members to reapply for their positions.
The council tabled the vote last month after dozens of firefighters, residents and business owners turned out to vigorously object.
BULLETIN: By a 4-0 vote, with one abstention, the Council unanimously approved introducing the ordinance, which is scheduled to be voted upon at its Sept. 4 public meeting.
It seemed to be triggered when an 18-year-old special needs student was arrested for pinning a 3-year-old boy in a firehouse locker and molesting him. Within hours of the incident, borough officials closed down the firehouse, then opened it with restricted access while conducting a series of meetings aimed at replacing the department.
Tensions had been stoked before that, however, as questions arose over how to create a paid company.
Council members appear to have enough votes to not only introduce but approve the ordinance, which was made public the same day the firefighters sued borough officials, claiming they exceeded their legal authority and violated state sunshine laws.
The measure requires the 50 or so volunteer firefighters to reapply for their positions in writing and pass a physical every two years. Those convicted of higher-degree crimes, or those involving fires or alarms, would be bounced. So would those over 40 — which includes 20 current firefighters.
Company brass – the fire chief, deputy chief and captains – would be selected by the mayor.
Borough firefighters and supporters have argued that the replacement of the current company is specifically designed to oust Fire Chief David Bohnert and Deputy Chief Jack Peters, who have been fighting the mayor and council over the move.
Several borough residents have created their own Facebook and Yahoo groups, which they said is to prevent being censored. They question the legality of the vote tonight when no public hearing has been held. CLICK HERE for the LEONIA FACEBOOK GROUP
“These guys continue to think they are above following rules and laws,” wrote Maureen Davis Havlusch. “This is a wildest lawless town to them. We might as well be Deadwood, SD.
“Maybe it’s time for anyone opposed to start making calls and going to their legislators to ask questions about who these four votes are coming from and how those four voters can make that decision before the appropriate process [is followed].”
New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act “clearly states that they cannot decide on an issue in a venue that is not open to the public to hear the discussion, and then use a public meeting to ‘rubber stamp’ their decision,” added Peters’s wife, Karen Delany Peters. “Seems like the height of arrogance considering they are currently defendants in a lawsuit accusing them of violating OPMA.”
Council President Peter Knott said the restricted access – including no social activities and keeping non-firefighters out of the building – stemmed from liability concerns. He said the process began last year, after several firefighters complained about staff shortages and poor response times – and that opponents simply don’t want to be replaced.
A with direct knowledge of the alleged June 14 assault told CLIFFVIEW PILOT at the time that the boy was the son of a visiting firefighter and that Darius E. Levine, the man charged with molesting him, was around the firehouse quite a bit, although borough officials characterized him as “someone from outside.”
Bohnert was criticized by Mayor John DeSimone and council members, who pointed out that the 4-foot-11-inch Levine marched in uniform with the department in this year’s Memorial Day parade.
Brendan Reilly, the fire company president, countered that the governing body was aware that Levine would be marching — and that the mayor offered him the opportunity to do so with them.
The youngest of three adopted special-needs children in his family, Levine has been unable to become a full-fledged firefighter because of his disabilities, the source said — explaining that, although Levine is intelligent, he is also developmentally and physically disabled.
Levine, who originally was committed to the secure unit of Bergen Regional Medical Center following his arrest, has since been transferred to the county jail. His bail remained at $100,000 this afternoon.
As CLIFFVIEW PILOT reported exclusively, screams brought volunteers running the night of June 14 at the firehouse, where they reported finding the young son of a volunteer firefighter pinned in a locker.
Levine was “touching the boy and touching himself,” a source with direct knowledge of the incident said.
Firefighters pulled Levine away, then called police, as the frightened youngster was comforted.
The boy was riding scooters with his brother when the incident occurred behind a fire truck, the source said.
Investigators were at the firehouse for several hours before arresting Levine after midnight and charging him with second-degree sexual assault by contact following an intensive review of the circumstances.
Although firefighters said they believed ordinary activities would resume the next day, borough officials immediately suspended department operations and secured mutual aid agreements from Fort Lee and Teaneck to cover their respective sides of town for two full days.
The governing body reopened the house, but with restricted access to trucks and equipment, and for medical emergencies. Mutual aid departments apparently are still handing the borough’s major calls.
Most firefighters weren’t at the house at the time of the incident, Reilly argued, adding that police immediately were called.
Tensions have been building since then, culminating in tonight’s expected vote – and a new way of adding firefighters to the volunteer company.
“Many who re-applied would be turned down, especially older guys with the most valuable experience and wisdom,” Havlusch said. “This would further their objective to then have to claim they have no choice but to hire several paid firefighters to fill their deficit.
“Leadership has previously been done by election of the membership of the LVFD and then the town council officially approves and appoints the leadership,” she added. “Now, they want to cut out even that step of having elections at all that get approved and move right to political appointment of the fire department leaders.
“This is not a leadership job that political patronage should determine…. These are leadership positions that make life and death decisions and it should not be based upon who is a neighbor or friend of a current council man or an overstepping municipal employee who left many previous jobs amidst scandals for overstepping and trying to inject undue influence.”
The lawsuit filed by the firefighters will require depositions from several people – and will, in the end, tell the true story, Havlusch said.
She suggests that those concerned should “look very carefully for who [led] the actions that closed the fire department, who made the arrangements with other towns to cover for us” and whether “they really made an effort to have a meeting with enough notice to have fire department leadership included, if they called any second or third in command.
“Look for whether or not it was discussed and identified that this should be strictly about the incident and not comingle this old ordinance into this current issue,” she added. “Look for whether or not OPMA requirements for meetings were followed and why OPRA requests for emails had to be made.
“Look for whether there are missing emails — and when they come out, look for what they say…. [W]hen the information comes out, ask these questions and look for these things.”
PHOTO, TOP: Chris Torello
CPT Fireground Photos
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