PATERSON, NJ – The City Council has approved a $250,000 settlement on a lawsuit filed by the former president of the Paterson firefighters’ union says he was harassed in retaliation for his attempts to protect workers and expose wrongdoing by high-ranking municipal officials.
The council approved the settlement with firefighter Michael McGorty at its June 6 meeting. Councilman Aslon Goow cast the only vote against the deal. Goow said his vote was in protest of the poor city management that has resulted in many lawsuits being filed against municipal government and not about the details of the McGorty case.
“Under the previous administration, a lot of things were done recklessly,’’ resulting in lawsuits, Goow said. “This administration seems to be following the same course.’’
McGorty filed the lawsuit in March 2010 and named among the defendants Paterson Fire Chief Michael Postorino and Fire Director Glenn Brown. The sweeping 27-page complaint includes numerous allegations against city officials, including that they engaged in unfair treatment of minority and female firefighters, misused of hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ dollars and undertook a variety of vindictive actions against McGorty.
At one point, the lawsuit says, the problems between McGorty and the city’s fire department administration grew so bitter that officials tried to undermine his efforts to hold a ceremony honoring firefighters who died in the line of duty.
Over the past 18 months, the city has paid out more than $2.3 million in lawsuits involving the police department. In contract, settlements involving the fire department have cost Paterson less than $50,000 over that time. Under the McGorty settlement, part of the $250,000 would cover his legal fees, according to city documents. But it was not clear exactly how much would cover the fees.
McGorty’s lawsuit covered a wide range of allegations. Among them were:
- The city received about $300, 000 in grant money from 2004 to 2008 to test for tuberculosis, even though the city had not conducted such tests since 1983.
- The city may have misused money from the federal Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant program for equipment not covered by the guidelines. McGorty said he requested documents regarding the grant and was told the administration didn’t “want this information in the public’s hands.’’
- A deputy fire chief directed the union to pay a vendor, who was a friend of the deputy chief, for windbreakers that had not been approved through proper union channels.
- The city did not properly account for $120,000 the Passaic Valley Water Commission had set aside for fire hydrant testing, work the suit says was done by firefighters.
- Chief Postorino requested that the union pay for attorneys' fees Postorino incurred as a defendant in a whistle-blower lawsuit. McGorty said he denied payment because the bills were personal and not job-related.
The lawsuit described the following examples of union-related issues on which McGorty battled with the administration:
- A proposal for the union contract to provide firefighters with a break at some time during their 24-hour shifts. McGorty said union members were concerned that the absence of a break endangered the safety of firefighters and the public.
- A request to establish a counseling service for firefighters who were exposed to critical incidents which might impact on their emotional well-being.
- A dispute over a drug policy which was the subject of arbitration.
- The assignment of ambulance shifts. The suit says these are the most taxing and least favored shifts in the Department and routinely were given to newly hired firefighters, the majority of whom were females or minorities. As such, the suit maintained, this practice created a disparate impact on minority fire fighters. McGorty complained that these ambulance shifts we're not distributed evenly among members of the Department. Members who were close to the administration and did personal work for the Mayor and Chief did not receive ambulance shift work, according to the lawsuit.
- The creation of hazardous working conditions for firefighters by allowing construction to go one without bids and permits.
- The refusal to allow McGorty leave time to handle union business.
The lawsuit said the fire department administration suspended McGorty for 180 days on what the suit calls false claims that he was teaching courses at Passaic County Community College while on city time. McGorty maintained in the suit that he put in for comp time while he was teaching.