In a case with anti-Semitic overtones, a former platoon chief of the Shawnee Township Fire Department in northwestern Ohio has lodged a discrimination grievance with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, accusing the department of firing him wrongfully.
Paul Way’s complaint, sent May 8, claims he was fired in December 2012 for minor infractions affecting his 14-year department career. The department, meanwhile, based Way’s termination on what its spokesman said were violations of departmental rules.
Way and his attorney, Fazeel Khan, provided the Cleveland Jewish News with material designed to substantiate Way’s claim. It includes a photograph of a cake with a swastika encircled by the words “German fire department,” along with a cylinder bearing another swastika and the word “oven.” There are figures that look like they’re walking toward the oven.
Other photos show firefighters giving Nazi-style salutes. They show the firemen in a township ambulance, next to a truck in what looks like a firehouse, in front of and behind a ladder truck emblazoned with “Shawnee Fire Department,” and on the ladder itself. All the pictures feature that type of salute.
Way said the photos were “set up” by Platoon Chief John Norris, who also serves as the department’s public information officer.
Norris countered that Way was responsible for the pictures, staging them to “get under his shift officer’s nerves.” That shift officer at the time was Todd Truesdale, now the fire chief.
Truesdale has not made himself available for comment, but in a statement released to the CJN through Norris on May 2, he said Way was provided two pre-disciplinary conferences as allowed by Local 2550 of the International Association of Firefighters. The union “voted to not take either discipline case to arbitration as per the contract grievance procedure,” the chief said.
Norris said Way lost his job for violating the department’s social media and communications rules last August and was terminated in mid-December for abusing departmental sick time regulations.
Way said he was being targeted when the fire chief drove by and saw him having lunch at a restaurant while on sick leave. “Somebody had to call him,” Way said.
As for the photos, Norris said Way was an “integral part of the cake in those pictures.”
“Mr. Way made a joke, a very inappropriate joke,” he said. “He came up with this whole Nazi – I don’t even know the term to use – comment, I guess. I can’t think of what to say. Let’s just all attribute this to Mr. Way. Let’s leave it at that.
“I did not set those photos up,” Norris said. “You can quote that. And neither did Todd Truesdale.”
In his May 2 statement, Truesdale said that after Way first complained to the department about its conduct in 2012, “the township reissued our policy on discrimination to all members, we provided training to all department members and have not received any further complaints. There have been significant cultural changes at the department since I became chief in February 2009.”
Way and his attorney tell a different story.
Khan said he lodged the grievance on Way’s behalf because it accuses the fire department of discrimination against religious minorities, women, homosexuals – and Jews.
Way told the CJN that he didn’t speak out about the department’s discriminatory practices for years because “you got to keep your mouth shut or be ostracized.” He said his position began to shift when one of his two sons “came out” to him as a homosexual when the boy was 8 or 9, more than 10 years ago.
The incident that pushed him over the edge was a physical ability test “that was obviously discriminatory to females,” Way said. He said he and Truesdale were “the best of friends” before this started; now, he said, Truesdale won’t allow Way on fire department property, and he’s been “pretty well ostracized by the firefighting community.”
“We believe he was targeted and treated disparately in retaliation for his opposition to these types of practices,” said his lawyer, Khan.
Khan and Way, neither of whom is Jewish, allege the practices continued until Way was let go in mid-December. Way said they began under former Fire Chief David Belton, now one of three township trustees. Belton quit as chief in 2002.
Truesdale, Way said, was called “The German” or “Hitler” because “the way he looked, it reminded people of a German soldier, and he would speak a little bit in German.”
Belton, Trustee Chris Seddelmeyer and Trustee Russ Holly didn’t respond to at least two voicemail and email requests for comment from the CJN.
On May 10, Missy Van Meter, administration assistant to the board of trustees, said because of the “alleged” complaint, there would be no comment from trustees. She provided the following statement:
“Mr. Way was demoted due to violations of township policy, including insubordination. Mr. Way was terminated for violations of township policy, including misusing sick leave. Mr. Way was provided the rights contained in the collective bargaining agreement between the township and IAFF. Neither the demotion nor termination were appealed to arbitration. Information concerning Mr. Way’s disciplinary record is contained in his personnel file.”
“They think this is all in good fun,” Way said of the practices he attributes to his former department. “There’s nothing funny about Nazism.”
Last week, Rabbi Yosef Zylberberg, of Temple Beth Israel-Shaare Zedek in Lima, said he was not aware of the complaint or of any allegations of anti-Semitism on the part of the Shawnee Township Fire Department.
“Nobody has spoken about it to me,” he said. “I can’t comment on something I have no knowledge of. “I don’t want to defame a department, but I think anyone would be appalled if that was true.”
Zylberberg said he has been the spiritual leader of Temple Beth Israel, the only synagogue in Lima, for about a year. He said he comes to the Reform synagogue once a month for services.
Connie Horning, president of Temple Beth Israel, said she has lived in Shawnee Township for 30 years and had heard nothing about the complaint or the allegations.
“Nobody (in the congregation) has said anything,” she said last week. “We’re completely unaware of it, but I sure would like to know more about it since I live in Shawnee Township.”
Nina Sundell, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said May 9 the ADL does not comment on pending litigation. On May 7, she said she was not aware of the complaint but would look into it.
The Detroit office of the EEOC received the charge May 9, according to a UPS tracking document. Gail Cober, acting director of the Detroit office, said federal privacy law prevented her from commenting on the case. She could not acknowledge receipt of the complaint.
Shawnee Township borders Lima, about 175 miles west of Cleveland.