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Leonia council moves to take control of borough volunteer fire company

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo

UPDATE: Over the protests of residents who said most of what they were doing was illegal, Leonia council members last night adopted new rules requiring firefighters to pass criminal background checks and physicals every two years.

Department members could continue to choose their own chief — who would, in turn, recommend a deputy chief, captains and lieutenants for approval by the mayor and council, under an ordinance approved last night.

But all current firefighters must pass both the background checks and physicals.

The actions come in the wake of an incident in which an 18-year-old special needs student was arrested for pinning a 3-year-old boy in a firehouse locker and molesting him.

It also follows what residents said are private talks by borough officials aimed at having the paid Englewood Fire Department handle fire services in the borough.

It somewhat dilutes an original plan to make all of the volunteers reapply and give the mayor the authority to select their chief — several aspects of which, the volunteers pointed out, violated state law.

The revision was met with the same anger, however, as the council directed its three-member fire committee to craft a new set of bylaws within a month to 45 days.

Opponents tried to point out that case law in New Jersey has found that by-laws are written by the companies themselves and not by municipal officials or committees.

The likely result will be another lawsuit filed by the fire company, in addition to current litigation.

Borough Attorney Brian Giblin insisted that the ordinance complies with state law that allows a municipality to contract with a volunteer fire company.

However, Company President Brendan Reilly said that “since a ‘contract’ is a mutual agreement between two parties and the council did not include the fire company or department, the question can be raised if this is, in fact, a valid contract.”

The ordinance passed, 4-1, with Councilman Pasquale Fusco casting the only opposing vote. Councilman Gil Hawkins, a volunteer firefighter, recused himself.

All of this was done, opponents said, without input from the volunteers, who are suing the borough for closing their house as a gathering place, among other decisions. That keeps firefighters from being in the building when alarms sound, forcing them to drive there to collect their equipment.

Council members countered that the original lawsuit brought by the company limits the amount of interaction the borough can have with the volunteers.

Opponents also presented what one called “an incredibly damning” email involving talks with Englewood for paid fire coverage.

“It looks pretty clear that they are forming a new Boro-controlled fire department and requiring anyone who wants to be a firefighter to apply to them,” said Maureen Davis Havlusch, one of the most outpoken opponents. “So if they are creating a new one and firefighters must apply to them, clearly the existing fire department is being voted out of existence and disbanded without using the word disbanded.”

The email about Englewood pretty much reveals the end game, Havlusch said. The long-term plan apparently was what it has seemed all along, she said — to eliminate the 115-year-old volunteer company and replace it with paid firefighters.

Council President Peter Knott said the process of revamping the company began last year, after several firefighters complained about staff shortages and poor response times. The restricted access – including no social activities and keeping non-firefighters out of the building – stemmed from liability concerns after the June assault on the boy, he said.

A source with direct knowledge of the incident told CLIFFVIEW PILOT at the time that the boy was the son of a visiting firefighter and that Darius E. Levine, the man charged with molesting him — was around the firehouse quite a bit, although borough officials characterized him as “someone from outside.”

Mayor John DeSimone and council members pointed out that the 4-foot-11-inch Levine marched in uniform with the department in this year’s Memorial Day parade.

Reilly, the fire company president, countered that the governing body was aware that Levine would be marching — and that the mayor offered him the opportunity to do so with them.

The youngest of three adopted special-needs children in his family, Levine has been unable to become a full-fledged firefighter because of his disabilities, the source said — explaining that, although Levine is intelligent, he is also developmentally and physically disabled.

Levine, who originally was committed to the secure unit of Bergen Regional Medical Center following his arrest, has since been transferred to the county jail. His bail remained at $100,000 this morning.

As CLIFFVIEW PILOT reported exclusively, screams brought volunteers running the night of June 14 at the firehouse, where they reported finding the young son of a volunteer firefighter pinned in a locker.

Levine was “touching the boy and touching himself,” a source with direct knowledge of the incident said.

Firefighters pulled Levine away, then called police, as the frightened youngster was comforted.

The boy was riding scooters with his brother when the incident occurred behind a fire truck, the source said.

Investigators were at the firehouse for several hours before arresting Levine after midnight and charging him with second-degree sexual assault by contact following an intensive review of the circumstances.

Although firefighters said they believed ordinary activities would resume the next day, borough officials immediately suspended department operations and secured mutual aid agreements from Fort Lee and Teaneck to cover their respective sides of town for two full days.

The governing body reopened the house, but with restricted access to trucks and equipment, and for medical emergencies.

Most firefighters weren’t at the house at the time of the incident, Reilly argued, adding that police immediately were called.

Last month, the molested boy’s family filed a notice of intent to sue the borough.

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