Our network

Ex-firefighter sues Montague for stifling free speech | News

Title (Max 100 Characters)

Ex-firefighter sues Montague for stifling free speech

MONTAGUE, Mich. (WZZM) - A former Montague firefighter is suing the department and his ex-boss, claiming he was fired for opposing a new fire house and supporting the fire chief's brother.

Former Montague Fire Chief Dennis Roesler handled dissent among the ranks by having people fired or demoted – including his own brother, the federal lawsuit claims.

The seven-member Montague Fire District Board acted in lock-step with the chief, effectively silencing anyone who opposed the department, to the detriment of the public good, the lawsuit claims.

It's the latest black-eye for the Muskegon County fire agency that oversees protection for the city of Montague along with Montague and White River townships.

Internal squabbling, the embattled new firehouse and criminal charges against the fire chief have plagued a department that is staffed with several members of the Roesler family.

Dennis Roesler was suspended as fire chief in April after he was charged with assaulting his wife. He pleaded no contest to the charge and was sentenced in September to jail and probation. He is still with the fire department, but was demoted to firefighter.

Glen Naghtin a Montague firefighter for 31 years, claims Dennis Roesler's conduct "was either motivated by evil or involved reckless or callous indifference'' to Naghtin's First Amendment right to free speech.

At the core of the controversy was a 2010 proposal to build a new fire station during Dennis Roesler's tenure as chief. His brother, fire Capt. Donald Roesler, spoke out against construction flaws, fire code violations and deviations from accepted specifications, the suit claims.

Donald Roesler, who was elected captain by his peers, asked for a leave of absence due to mounting tensions surrounding the issue.

Despite the fact that no one had ever been denied a leave of absence, Chief Dennis Roesler denied his brother's request and demoted him to fire fighter "due to his speaking out about the issues with the fire station construction,'' the lawsuit states.

After the demotion, Naghtin launched a petition drive seeking the captain's reinstatement, saying he was demoted for "speaking out on issues of public concern, including problems connected to the building of a new fire station.''

During a special meeting on Dec. 7, 2011, Chief Roesler recommended that Naghtin be fired, and the Board voted accordingly. The lawsuit claims Chief Roesler routinely retaliated against those who criticized his performance as chief.

Other firefighters kept their opinions to themselves because they feared they would lose their jobs if they spoke out against the fire chief or the new building, the suit claims.

The actions created an "informal system of censoring speech through an abuse of the fire Board's powers,'' the lawsuit claims.