GROTON -- Four firefighters who recently lost their jobs or claim to have been forced to leave the Fire Department say they are planning to sue the town.
Robert Bowen, a Lunenburg attorney for the four firefighters, said Monday the town violated state law that requires it to provide its employees hearings before terminating their jobs.
To get around the law, Bowen said, selectmen came up with an excuse that the firefighters were not "reappointed," rather than fired, even though the town hadn't annually reappointed its Fire Department personnel in more than three decades.
"The town's position is that these firefighters were not reappointed, resigned or retired and so were not entitled to a hearing," Bowen wrote in a press release. "The firefighters intend to challenge this end run in court," Bowen added.
"I personally think they are wasting their money and wasting their town's money" by filling a lawsuit, Selectmen Chairman Joshua Degen said in reaction to Bowen's announcement. "I just find the situation unfortunate from the beginning of the situation to now."
Bowen's announcement comes three days after the Board of Selectmen held an executive session to interview town officials and some employees, who were the subject of the alleged harassment and other complaints the firefighters had filed. After the more than four-hour closed hearing Friday, the board concluded they could not substantiate any of the allegations.
"The individuals named in the complaints are exonerated from having engaged in harassment, retaliation or coercion of any member of the Fire Department," Degen announced after the meeting.
The town has not released the contents of any of the four complaints to The Sun. However, the town had released one of the complaints to The Groton Herald. In that document, former Groton firefighter Stephen Tervo complained he had received a termination notice from Fire Chief Joseph Bosselait on June 10 without any explanation via email.
Degen has said there were two firefighters who were not reappointed, while former Deputy Chief Clarence Jefferson retired and former firefighter James Horan resigned. In the press release Monday, Bowen said those who recently separated from the department were Jefferson, Horan, Tervo and Benjamin Miele.
Bowen said the situations for the four firefighters vary, but they shared two things in common. They all tried to organize a union and also participated in an investigation into a complaint that another firefighter had filed earlier this year.
Selectmen have said they had Town Manager Mark Haddad conduct some interviews after an independent investigator hired by the town finished looking into the complaint from earlier this year.
"After the town manager's interviews, and after reviewing overall department operation, Chief Bosselait advised certain individuals that they would not be reappointed," the board said in a press release June 23. Bowen, however, described the follow-up interviews as something Haddad took upon himself to do.
Without saying specifically which firefighter he was referring to, Bowen wrote that a 33-year veteran was "told to retire when informed that he would not be reappointed."
Two other firefighters were "summarily dismissed via email without hearing or explanation," Bowen said. Although the fourth firefighter "resigned in protest over his treatment regarding protected union activity," it is believed personnel action against him had also already been determined," the press release said.
Bowen pointed out that absent of the annual reappointment of firefighters over the decades, the fire personnel expected continued employment. The state's so-called "strong-chief law" allows the fire chief to fire a staff member "for cause with a hearing," he said. But he said such hearings never took place.
Bowen called removal of the firefighters by non-reappointment "an end run around the strong-chief law, and we think unlawful in violation of that statute and the constitutional right of these firefighters to due process."
He also said the board's Friday hearings with Haddad, Bosselait and more than a dozen Fire Department staff members was "not a substitute for a hearing in which the firefighters would be allowed to defend the allegations against them."
Degen said Monday that the complainants are not allowed in the hearings and that the board followed the rules to conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations. The firefighters should look at themselves as the root cause of the problem instead of blaming the town for it, Degen said. Filing a lawsuit is their right, however, Degen said.
Bowen said the firefighters just want due process and "the vindication of their reputations."