Guest post by Stan Wicks
A small city in upstate New York has been under a cloud of controversy after denying fire chief, Russell Brooks, the benefits he needs for cancer treatments. His illness was the result of working recovery efforts at Ground Zero. Some are speculating the move is political retribution for the chief’s son’s pending lawsuit against the city.
Perhaps this is what the city’s former mayor meant when he once declared the city “a stinking, rotten town.”
According to local media reports, the story goes like this: Brooks, a 40-year career firefighter and United States Marine Corps veteran, has served as chief of the Utica Fire Department (UFD) in upstate New York for the past 13 years.
As part of his job duties, Brooks and a contingent from the fire department traveled to Manhattan in the days after 9/11, spending a week assisting with rescue and recovery efforts. They brought equipment and gear with them from the UFD.
The result, according to Brooks, is that he’s been battling cancer for several years after inhaling toxic fumes and handling dangerous materials at Ground Zero. This compelled Brooks to apply for health benefits under state law which cover illnesses and injuries incurred while in the performance of one’s job.
Furthermore, according to state statutes, an individual hired by a paid department that develops certain types of cancer while in their employ, is presumed to have incurred the illness as a result of their job duties. It is called “presumptive cancer coverage.”
The law is clear here – Brooks developed his illness in the service of the UFD, and it is therefore the municipality’s responsibility to cover it as a work-related illness.
The city disagrees. Two-term Democratic Mayor Robert Palmieri waited five months to even respond to Brooks’ application. At that juncture, Palmieri and his attorneys summoned Brooks to City Hall, summarily dismissed him from the service, had him turn in his radio and keys, instructed him not to represent himself as Chief to anyone, and placed him on administrative leave. This administrative leave requires Brooks to take sick time.
“It’s immoral and inappropriate,” Brooks told Syracuse.com. “I don’t have a good relationship with the mayor, and this is just a way to get rid of me. It’s all political.”
City officials for their part haven’t commented due to “pending personnel matters.” Palmieri though, has denied it was a political move.
This should raise serious concerns, however. First being the city’s claim that Brooks wasn’t in New York City on work-related duties. This can easily be dismissed since there was no denial of any request to go to NYC in the aftermath of 9/11, and no disciplinary action taken for using city equipment.
Second, the mayor might have reversed himself, having been quoted as saying “(Brooks) is still the chief.”
Finally, it must be asked of the mayor: Is this retribution for the Chief’s son, John Brooks – who is a firefighter-paramedic for the UFD – requesting a religious exemption during a dispute over the the younger Brooks’ hair length?
Palmieri for his part has developed a pattern of denying benefits to his city’s first responders. In 2015, Palmieri attempted to deny benefits for the city’s police officers.
Stay tuned for how this story ends.