Garden City Park fire commissioners vote to appeal court order reversing firefighter’s expulsion

Brandon Duffy
The Garden City Park Fire Department headquarters is seen on Jericho Turnpike in Garden City Park. (Photo by Noah Manskar)

Commissioners for the Garden City Park Water and Fire District have voted to appeal a state Supreme Court order to reinstate a firefighter who was expelled, according to firefighter Jensen Thomas.

In February, the district’s Board of Commissioners voted 2-1 to remove Thomas, a 31-year-old EMT who was a firefighter in the district since 2008 and a captain since 2016, on grounds of violating district by-laws, engaging in disrespectful conduct and damaging district property.

Judge Diccia Pineda-Kirwan’s decision on Nov. 8 reversed the district’s termination of Thomas, accepting the firefighter’s argument that the disciplinary action he received was disproportionate. 

Earlier this month, at a board meeting for the district, Thomas said, two commissioners, Chris Engel and Peter Chimenti, voted to appeal the court order. 

On Dec. 14, Engel lost to challenger Alan Cooper by 129 votes to 252. Thomas said he considered himself a prominent supporter of Cooper and considered the appeal retaliatory for his help on Cooper’s campaign. 

“I think a large part of the appeal had to do with the election,” Thomas said. “I think it’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.” 

The incident in question stems from a discussion between Thomas and Third Assistant Chief John Janus that took place during a 2019 Christmas party. Janus opposed Thomas’ candidacy for third assistant chief in that year’s election, which Thomas lost. After the conversation escalated to an argument, Thomas was ordered to leave after cursing and raising his voice, which he agreed to do after initially refusing. 

Upon leaving, Thomas went to the district headquarters and threw a television remote, kicked a wall and slammed a door, damaging the wall, for which he was expelled. 

Thomas said his discipline was disproportionate to the charges.

Thomas, who is Indian, is one of two firefighters of color in the district. The firefighter said that previous members have sued the department and had their rulings upheld.  Thomas said he believes that this is the first appeal from the commissioners regarding a lawsuit. 

“I think this was racially motivated by the Board of Fire Commissioners,” Thomas said. 

According to previous testimony, Chief Salju Thomas, who is not related to the firefighter, described abusive behavior in the department. The chief said firefighters put an insulting sticker on his helmet and an ex-chief referred to the 31-year-old as “Obama.”

Thomas said he does not believe the appeal will win and said he has some support in the department for reinstatement. Thomas said he is hoping when Cooper is sworn in the commissioners will reinstate him. 

Efforts to reach the district were unavailing.

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