Hobart commission will have to decide which firefighters are telling the truth
By Karen Caffarini Post-Tribune correspondent November 14, 2012 11:42AM
Updated: December 19, 2012 11:50AM
HOBART — The Fire Commission will need to go through almost four hours of conflicting, and often salacious, testimony given Tuesday night in determining whether Fire Lt. Mark Slonaker publicly made disparaging remarks about two fellow firefighters, including one who reportedly was seen alone with a naked woman in Fire Station No. 2, and whether Slonaker should be demoted for his actions.
“There is a credibility issue here for the commission to decide, and a constitutional issue,” said Alan Mendel, the hearing officer for this case.
Mendel told attorneys for both Slonaker and Fire Chief Brian Taylor to issue their findings of fact to commission members by Dec. 4 so the commission could discuss and possibly make a decision on the matter at its Dec. 11 meeting.
City Attorney Anthony DeBonis contends the First Amendment doesn’t apply to firefighters and police officers, who he said give up that right so the departments can operate more efficiently.
Michael Deppe, Slonaker’s attorney, disagreed, saying Slonaker has the right of freedom of speech like anyone else.
The commissioners also must decide who of the five people who testified Tuesday night were telling the truth.
Shelly Gilliana, a former barber shop owner and former girlfriend of Slonaker’s who filed a complaint against him with the Fire Department, testified that Slonaker often spoke with disdain about fellow firefighters and the department while in the barber shop.
Gilliana also stated that, while in the barber shop on May 7, when others were present, Slonaker told her, “Well, your buddy (fellow Fire Lt. John) Papka got caught banging his girlfriend in House 2,” which is often closed.
Gilliana, who has closed the barber shop and now lives in Illinois, said she found the remarks inappropriate and sent Slonaker a letter on June 25 asking him not to return. She also made a formal complaint to the fire chief on June 29.
“I felt I was allowing him an open forum to say these things. I believed it was bad for business,” Gilliana said.
Slonaker said he didn’t remember making that statement or other disparaging remarks about firefighters and the department. He contended that his demotion was political, saying Taylor and Papka are friends and his demotion would clear the way for Papka to be promoted to colonel quicker.
Papka, meanwhile, stated that he didn’t even know the woman at the fire station and said he felt he was the victim in this incident. He said he was told to go to the station to do a child car seat check for a woman through a request from Geminus. He said the woman said she had to use the restroom, then came out, exposing herself.
Papka said a group of firefighters arrived at that moment. He said only his shirt was off.
He was given a five-day suspension and taken off days-only shifts and put on swing shift like other fire personnel as punishment.
DeBonis said there is no way of knowing who the woman was due to confidentiality issues with Geminus.
Deppe questioned Gilliana’s motive and credibility, noting it took six weeks before she filed the complaint and continued to keep in touch with Slonaker after the May incident.
When asked if he investigated the matter, Taylor said he visited the barber shop recently and spoke to one person who was mentioned as possibly being at the scene when Slonaker reportedly talked about Papka. He said that person told him he had no recollection of the incident.