over Facebook posting
BY STEPHANIE AKIN,
from the Web, January 21, 2009
PARAMUS — A borough employee
was suspended today without pay after allegedly posting racist remarks about
Barack Obama and invoking the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
on his Facebook page, Borough Administrator Anthony Iacono said.
Christopher Petronzio, who works in the Shade Tree and Parks Commission and
volunteers as a firefighter, says the comments posted on the popular Internet
networking site were taken out of context and had nothing to do with his job.
Rather, he said, the borough is retaliating against him because he is an active
member of a union that is suing the borough for unfair labor practices.
“What they did was they suspended me for something that was done on my time, not
on theirs,” he said.
Petronzio, who has more than 200 Facebook friends — including borough employees,
a councilman and a former councilman — posted a greeting yesterday, saying,
“Chris would like to wish everyone a happy James Earl Ray day.”
James Earl Ray is the man who assassinated King.
Petronzio’s Facebook page also included an advertisement for Kentucky Fried
Chicken superimposed on a picture of the White House. He also posted a
racist slur referring to President Obama, Iacono said.
“That’s just a word that you don’t use,” Iacono said. “Whether he used it
specifically in the workplace or not, it found its way here.”
The Bergen County Prosecutors’ Office and the Paramus Police Department are
investigating whether the posting could be considered a bias crime, Iacono said.
If not, the borough attorney will determine whether it violates local workplace
discrimination and employee conduct regulations.
Borough code says employees can be fired for, “conduct unbecoming of a public
employee” or for harassing or discriminating against other employees, Iacono
said. Petronzio will be suspended until the investigation is finished.
Borough administrators began getting calls about offensive material about 11
a.m., as Barack Obama was preparing to take his oath of office as the country’s
first African American president, Iacono said.
Facebook users can determine who has access to their personal profiles.
But the callers, most of whom were not employed by the borough, said copies of
Petronzio’s page had been circulating via e-mail.
Petronzio, who has worked for the borough for eight years, identifies himself as
a borough employee on the Web site.
“This is obviously a gray area,” Iacono said. “This is his personal Web
page, and it’s not really any of our business until it’s brought to our
attention. Our concern is that it was brought to our attention.”
He later added, “We treat this extremely seriously.”
Petronzio said he supports Obama and was attempting to make a reference to the
Mel Brooks movie “Blazing Saddles,” in which characters from a small town are
slow to accept an African American sheriff.
“It is blatantly obvious that it’s the shock of getting a black sheriff and he
saves the day, which is what we need with this economy,” Petronzio said.
The other comments were private jokes, he said.
Petronzio said he spent this morning shoveling snow. Though Iacono
mentioned the complaints to him early in the day, he did not worry about it, he
said. He learned of the suspension at the end of his workday.
Petronzio said he did not attempt to explain himself to Iacono because a union
representative was not at the meeting.
Petronzio is a member of Teamsters Local 97 and said he has raised the union’s
concerns at public meetings several times during the past year. He said he
also has complained to the U.S. Labor Department that the borough is failing to
pay workers for overtime.
A court hearing in the union’s dispute with the borough is scheduled for
Thursday, he said.
He said he plans to consult an attorney about whether the borough has violated
his First Amendment right to free speech.