A judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed by a high-ranking Kingston firefighter who claims that he was placed on an unpaid suspension without adequate due process. Meanwhile, Mayor Shayne Gallo said this week that an audit by the State Comptroller’s Office will show that Assistant Chief Chris Rea and former fire chief Rick Salzmann were paid for dozens of days that they did not work.
Rea was suspended without pay back on Feb. 9, just two weeks after he was appointed to take over the department following Salzmann’s abrupt and unexpected retirement. At the time, Gallo would say only that Rea’s suspension was related to “issues of time and attendance,” the same issues cited in Salzmann’s early exit from the department. However, while Salzmann elected to take retirement rather than face disciplinary action, Rea has engaged in a legal battle with the city over the terms of his suspension.
In May, Rea filed suit in state Supreme Court alleging that the city had violated state civil service law by failing to present him with formal disciplinary charges and offering him an opportunity to defend himself at a hearing. In August, in response to a court order to file disciplinary charges or reinstate the former assistant chief, city officials presented Rea with 27 separate allegations of misconduct and dereliction of duty. The charges allege that on 13 occasions Rea was paid for work at the Fire Department on the same day he was paid for teaching classes at the state fire academy in Montour Falls. The charges also claimed that time sheets requested by City Comptroller John Tuey from Rea in January as part of an effort to centralize vacation accruals contained false entries. Rea was also accused of keeping sexually explicit material on a work computer and dereliction of duty for failing to replace firefighters’ turnout gear and ensure that the city was in compliance with 2009 a law requiring fire departments to provide escape ropes to members. Rea has denied any wrongdoing. To date no disciplinary hearing has taken place.
Following the presentation of charges, Rea filed a second lawsuit seeking reinstatement with back pay. In the lawsuit, Rea alleges that city officials acted in an “arbitrary and capricious” manner in his suspension and exceeded the 30-day limit for unpaid suspension without a disciplinary hearing. Rea also claimed that the alleged violations occurred outside the 18-month time frame for disciplinary action for non-criminal acts under civil service law.
In dismissing the lawsuit, Acting State Supreme Court Justice Henry Zwack ruled that Rea had not filed the suit within the statutory time frame. Zwack made no ruling on the merits of the case.
While Rea remains in legal limbo, Gallo said that he expected an audit of the Kingston Fire Department by the State Comptroller’s Office would “vindicate completely” the actions taken against Rea and Salzmann. The audit, requested by Gallo following Salzmann’s retirement and Rea’s suspension, has not yet been made public. But Gallo said this week he had seen a draft copy of the report which contained clear evidence that both men took advantage of the previous administration’s practice of allowing senior officials to track their own vacation days to receive payment for days they didn’t work. The actions, Gallo said, could rise to the level of criminal conduct. Gallo added that the misconduct appeared to be confined to Salzmann and Rea. It was a dynamic, Gallo said, that he believed prevailed during the administration of his predecessor, Mayor James Sottile, where high ranking officials were not held accountable for their actions while rank-and-file workers kept quiet for fear of retaliation.
“[The audit] is an acknowledgement of the entire culture of entitlement that dominated city government for 10 years,” said Gallo.