Fire company, ex-members clash

By Joe Beck

HARRISONBURG — After hearing three days of testimony and arguments in a jury trial pitting two former Front Royal firefighters against their former fire company and former president, U.S. District Judge Michael F. Urbanski summarized the case Wednesday for the opposing sides.

“This is about boys not playing well together inside the fire department. That’s what this is,” Urbanski declared.

Urbanski sounded exasperated at times as he listened to Dawn Boyce of Fairfax, representing the defendants, and Timothy Bosson of Leesburg, representing the plaintiffs, make their arguments.

Philip A. Charles and David M. Ellinger contend that David Santmyers, acting in his role as president of the Front Royal Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, violated the First Amendment rights of Charles and Ellinger and defamed them for their outspokenness on several departmental issues.

The jury heard testimony earlier this week from Warren County Fire and Rescue Services Chief Richard E. Mabie, Frederick County Sheriff Robert Williamson, former Front Royal Town Manager James Michael Graham, Front Royal council member Shae Parker, Santmyers and others.

“The thing that is clear to this court is that this department was in a great deal of turmoil,” Urbanski said, adding that it was also obvious that Santmyers, Ellinger and Charles held “a great deal of hostility” toward each other.

Urbanski said he would deliver a ruling Thursday on a motion by Boyce to have the case dismissed.

The case involves opposition by Ellinger and Charles to cuts in fire department programs and equipment, including fire department engines.

Ellinger and Charles accuse the fire department of suspending Ellinger and barring Charles from further membership in retaliation for their protests of departmental cuts.

Urbanski said he was especially troubled by what he considered a lack of evidence by Ellinger and Charles that they had been acting as private citizens in speaking out against the fire department’s actions. Urbanski said almost all of their controversial statements were made in the context of departmental meetings and as members of the department. Free speech protections do not apply in such circumstances, Urbanski said.

Urbanski said a meeting between Ellinger and Front Royal council member Shae Parker to discuss a decision by the department to sell off a piece of equipment constituted “thin” evidence that the plaintiffs were acting as private citizens.

“Speech inside a fire department meeting is not protected by the First Amendment,” Urbanski said. “Where is the evidence of retaliation? All there is is Shae Parker.”

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