YOU READ IT HERE FIRST: A former captain of North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue was legally demoted to firefighter after leaking a report he wrote alleging sexual harassment by a male battalion commander, a state appeals court found. The judges also upheld a 60-day suspension of the disgruntled firefighter, Steven Winters.
Winters argued that his First Amendment rights were violated, but the Appellate Division said the state Civil Service Commission, as a government authority, has the right to regulate conduct-related speech.
The only victory Winters got from the court was a rejection of his bosses’ request for harsher discipline.
Winters was on sick leave and collecting his full salary of $90,472 from the department when he took side jobs as an electrical inspector with two other municipalities: Old Bridge and Long Branch.
Previous suspensions and demotions, as well as his 2006 firing, were upheld by the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law and the New Jersey Civil Service Commission. In one of those cases, Winters leaked an internal report about the death of another firefighter to a TV news person.
Winter wasn’t going away quietly, though — not after the disciplinary measures or the ongoing complaints about radio equipment, safety issues and health concerns.
He still has a case pending before the state Supreme Court for his firing, which NHRFR officials said came after he failed to report to duty on the appointed date and refused to be examined by a psychiatrist, in violation of direct orders.
The appeals judges noted in their ruling Monday that Winters wrote a confidential report eight years ago in the case of an anonymous firefighter who accused a battalion chief of sexual harassment. A year later, they said, Winters gave a copy of the detailed report to Teaneck firefighter William Brennan.
The appellate court found that the department was right in demoting and suspending Winters, writing that courts “have allowed the government more leeway in regulating conduct-related speech rather than prohibiting speech itself.”
This doesn’t mean a government employee has a “blank prohibition against speaking to the media or other outside agencies or persons,” the judges wrote.
What is restricted, they said, is “imparting of information published for Departmental use to any party or parties.”
The in-court battles haven’t kept Winters from tangling with his former bosses.
Last year, Fire Chief Brion McEldowney told CLIFFVIEW PILOT a letter by Winters contained “false charges, phony statistics and deliberate misinformation” to try and degrade a department that was thriving despite severe obstacles.
SEE: Chief furious with disgraced firefighter’s ‘false charges’
Still pending is the case before the Supremes in which Winters claims the brass deprived him of his right to free speech when they disciplined him for remarks he made in various forums, including the day he asked members at a NHRFR committee meeting whether they had assembled a “strategic master plan” or a “risk analysis assessment.”
“If they haven’t been done,” he said, “what are our decisions based on?”
The directors and chief appealed after a lower court refused to block the captain’s suit. They also filed suit seeking a reconsideration of the original decision. But the appeals court upheld the ruling.
Winters began working as a firefighter in Union City in 1984. He stayed on when the NHRFR was created in 1999 as a merger of five Hudson County municipal fire departments: the townships of Weehawken and North Bergen, the towns of West New York and Guttenberg, and Union City. Eventually, he rose to captain.
In 2002, Winters began taking his bosses to task. He began by submitting several reports over two years citing radio communication problems the squad was having — a situation that he said needed to be fixed before it cost a life.
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