By Douglas Feiden
Southampton Town Trustee Bruce Stafford was suspended for three months from his position as a volunteer with the Sag Harbor Fire Department after two separate incidents of alleged misconduct earlier this year in which he was charged with driving in a “reckless, combative or imprudent manner.”
After the first incident, which took place on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike on the evening of January 10, Fire Department Chief Thomas Gardella instructed Mr. Stafford not to drive in an unsafe manner again. But on a second occasion, on March 20, he continued to drive in “violation of the law,” according to the notice of disciplinary charges filed against him.
As a consequence of having allegedly “disregarded” the chief’s instructions about safety, Mr. Stafford, a 38-veteran with the department, was accused of a third disciplinary count, “insubordination,” the statement of charges filed by the Fire Department says. In both cases, it cites eyewitnesses to the alleged dangerous-driving.
“When presented with the evidence and the accusations that I was presented with, I had no other choice but to take action,” Chief Gardella said in a brief interview. He declined to address matters that are under review by department counsel.
In the first instance, Mr. Stafford, responding to a fire alarm, made a right turn from Narrow Lane onto the Turnpike, failed to stop at a stop sign, and caused north-bound motorist Steven Harrington, who had the right of way and no stop sign, to “take evasive action in order to avoid a collision,” according to charges that describe the 7:51 p.m. episode.
Mr. Harrington had to drive into the oncoming traffic lane and pull over onto the shoulder — with his wife and four-year-old child in the car — as the fireman allegedly maneuvered into the oncoming lane to pass at an “unreasonable” speed. “You drove in a manner that was not prudent and placed members of the public, including yourself, in danger,” the document says.
In the second incident, at 1:30 p.m., at a location that was not identified, Mr. Stafford, responding to an emergency dispatch, allegedly drove in violation of the law, and in such a “reckless and/or impolite manner” that a witness called 911. When Southampton Town Police Officer Andrew Blodorn responded to investigate, the fireman was “rude and insubordinate,” the charge says.
“Your conduct with the investigating police officer injured or had the ability to injure the reputation of the Sag Harbor Fire Department,” it concludes.
Mr. Stafford, a landscaper who lives around the corner from the Sag Harbor Firehouse on Brick Kiln Road, was a former trustee of the Sag Harbor Village Board who served one two-year term before losing his seat in 2012. He has also served on the Fire Department’s Board of Wardens, its governing body, and in November 2015, was elected Southampton Town trustee.
On March 22, two days after the second driving incident, he was suspended, and on July 13, he will face a public disciplinary hearing that will determine if the charges again him are dismissed, sustained or modified. Depending on the outcome, he could be cleared or face additional punishment, such as a one-year suspension or the termination of his membership, the charging document states.
The charges, which were first filed on April 12, came to light only after attorney Thomas W. Horn, who represents Mr. Stafford, filed a notice of claim on his behalf against the Fire Department on June 19, alleging that he had been wrongfully deprived of his rights to due process, and repeatedly denied a chance to hear witnesses and evidence against him over a period of months.
Mr. Horn’s filing does not address the specifics of the allegations against his client. The claim states that he had been “improperly” suspended from the rolls as a volunteer fireman, and that the department “committed acts of misconduct” by failing to file the charges in a “timely manner” in accord with its bylaws.
“I feel violated after 38 years of service,” said Mr. Stafford in a statement released by Mr. Horn. “I’ve always fought to enforce the bylaws of the Sag Harbor Volunteer Fire Department.”
A notice of claim is required to put a municipality on notice of allegations from an injured party contemplating litigation, giving it an opportunity to respond or settle before a lawsuit in a case can commence.
In an interview, Mr. Horn said he would seek monetary damages, in the “six-figure to seven-figure range.” He said he expects to pursue a suit in either state Supreme Court or U.S. District Court, where he would argue that his client’s civil and constitutional rights, inherent in his service in the volunteer fire brigade, had been abrogated.
The claim is a roadmap for such a suit, outlining how “severe emotional distress” was intentionally and negligently inflicted on Mr. Stafford, and how the alleged misconduct caused him “pain and suffering” and led to the “loss of length-of-service points and other benefits, loss of companionship and association rights and constitutional rights.”
The notice of claim also names the village, charging that it was aware of the Fire Department’s “lack of due process and other negligent, reckless and intentional misconduct,” but failed to take any corrective actions.
Village Attorney David Gilmartin Jr. didn’t respond to requests for comment. Sag Harbor Mayor Sandra Schroder referred questions to the Fire Department. The department didn’t address specific allegations in Mr. Horn’s notice of claim. But its outside counsel, Bradley M. Pinsky, determined that the notice of disciplinary charges could be made public and emailed a copy to a Sag Harbor Express reporter.
Mr. Pinsky did say there was never any effort to deny or delay due process. But it was not easy to schedule the hearing that’s now slated for July 13: At one point, the hearing officer in the case was out of the country, and in May, the department was in mourning after the line-of-duty death of longtime volunteer firefighter Ted Stafford Jr.
On top of that, Mr. Horn could be difficult to reach at times and couldn’t make certain dates, and one delay was caused when he had surgery, Mr. Pinsky said.
Other than his surgery, Mr. Horn said that account was inaccurate.
“To this day, I still have not gotten the information, the materials, the witness statements, the evidence and anything else that would help me prepare an adequate defense,” he added.
And In a June 1 letter to the Fire Department and the Village Board of Trustees, Mr. Horn complained that his client’s name was being besmirched:
“Sag Harbor’s ‘talk on the street’ continues to belittle Mr. Stafford and alibi the department’s neglect, and it is clear that the situation is a worsening one,” he wrote.