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Former firefighters file suit against Front Royal company

By Joe Beck

Two former volunteer Front Royal firefighters sued their former company and its former president Monday in U.S. District Court in an action that seeks reinstatement with the company and unspecified amounts of compensatory and punitive damages.

Philip A. Charles and David M. Ellinger contend in a complaint they were unjustly banished from the company for speaking out against what they regarded as a "reduction in resources (that are) causing the department to be ill-prepared to handle the volume of fire hazards present in the town and county."

The suit's complaint also states that Charles and Ellinger "were wrongfully removed from their positions and defamed for expressing constitutionally protected speech in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and the Virginia Constitution."

The complaint lists the Front Royal Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department and its former president, David Santmyers, acting in his personal and official capacity as president, as defendants.

The suit contends Santmyers "is primarily responsible for the wrongful actions taken by the department."

Telephone messages seeking comment from Santmyers and the fire and rescue department's current leadership were not returned.

Warren County is not listed as a defendant in the suit, and county Fire Chief Richard E. Mabie said he knew little about it.

"I do know they've had some personnel issues in the past few months," Mabie said of the Front Royal company.

"We're certainly interested in what's going on with our fire departments, absolutely," Mabie added. "It's probably too early to comment on what's going on."

The suit states that Ellinger, a deputy sheriff in Frederick County, joined the Front Royal company as a volunteer firefighter in 2002, was elected to the department's board of directors and was treasurer from December 2010 until his resignation earlier this year.

Charles joined as a volunteer in 1999, was elected to the board of directors and began serving as secretary in December 2010.

Their complaint states that the number of fire engines in the department has dropped from three to one, and "beginning around 2011, the county began to significantly cut funding to and substantially reduce the assets of the department."

Ellinger and Charles protested what they considered the department's diminished funding and increased safety problems, "but met staunch resistance from some of the other members of the board and especially the president, (David) Santmyers, who basically attempted to silence dissenting voices," according to the lawsuit.

"Due to the harsh reaction of the board and the president, Philip resigned form his secretary position in the summer of 2012," the suit states.

The suit states that Ellinger was initially suspended from his membership for 60 days after resigning as treasurer in June "because of inappropriate board actions."

The department has continued the suspension indefinitely since then, according to the suit.

The suit states Charles was voted out of the organization in May.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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