As reported by nj.com, when William Stephens ran for Mayor of Edison in 2005, township firefighters supported his opponent Jun Choi, who won. Firefighters claims Stephens never forgot. Four years later, then-Councilwoman Antonia Ricigliano defeated Choi, took office and appointed Stephens as her management specialist.
In a federal court suit filed last week, firefighters say they have been targets of political payback from Stephens through policies he imposed to cut shifts and reduce firefighters’ assignments. The firefighters’ union, and three firefighters, filed suit naming Ricigliano, Stephens, assistant public safety director Richard Laid, and recently fired business administrator Dennis Gonzalez.
“Defendants have consistently imposed penal policies on the fire department in retribution for (firefighters) political opposition to Stephens,” as well as firefighters’ criticism of the administration’s policies, the suit states. Stephens denies the retribution claim and said charges were made to cut costs.
When Ricigliano ran for mayor in 2009, firefighters stumped for her as she promised to bolster public safety. Since the mayor took office in January 2010, her alliance with the union has dissolved.
Named as the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit are firefighters Anthony Pepe, James Walsh, and Christopher Seich along with the union, International Association of Firefighters Local 1197, and union president Robert Yackel. According to the suit, in 2005, the firefighters individually campaigned against Stephens, who indicated he would retaliate.
The suit also states that firefighters have public criticized Ricigliano’s policies. In retaliation, the suit contends, staffing at each firehouse was cut from 22 firefighters per 24-hour shift to 20. In addition, Ricigliano hired full-time emergency medical technicians, ending the practice of rotating firefighters to staff first aid squads. Walsh and Pepe received an additional $279.39 in every biweekly pay check for work as EMTs the suit states.
Ricigliano and Stephens defend the charges as saving tax dollars, and say that fire department overtime cost Edison $2 million in 2010, but has been cut to $25,000 for the first four months of this year. “We are very proud that we are able to provide a service to the people of Edison and at a cost-savings,” Stephens said. He said the township has volunteer firefighters to supplement the department, and the staff cut was not a safety risk, a contention union members dispute.
In the suit, the plaintiffs claim the retribution violates their rights to free speech and free assembly as union members.