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Council to Vote On Police Oversight Monday

Amid public discontent in response to news of the recent lawsuit brought by seven members of the Princeton Police Department against the department, the municipality, and former police chief David Dudeck, Princeton Council debated the issue of the statutory “appropriate authority” for civilian oversight of the Princeton Police Department.

Meeting last week, the Council was evenly split over a proposed ordinance amendment that would give “appropriate authority” to the town’s administrator, currently Robert Bruschi, rather than the governing body of the mayor and other members of the Council.

Mayor Liz Lempert was called upon to cast the tie-breaking vote. With council members Bernard Miller, Lance Liverman, and Police Commissioner Heather Howard, Ms. Lempert voted to adopt the ordinance amendment. Jo Butler, Jenny Crumiller, and Patrick Simon voted against it.

Not everyone agrees with the mayor.

Citing recent reports of dysfunction within the police department, former Borough Council member Roger Martindell has expressed the view that adopting the ordinance amendment would be “a serious mistake,” based on “a fundamental misunderstanding of state law and good public policy, as well as a lack of political will.”

According to Mr. Martindell: “In a viable municipal democracy, particularly one as healthy as Princeton, the public, through its elected representatives, should have ultimate say over public safety priorities, budgets, and governance. Mayor and Council, not a bureaucrat, should be the ultimate authority over the municipality’s largest, most expensive, most essential, and most publicly-sensitive department.”

The ordinance amendment will be voted on at a public hearing Monday, September 23.

As explained by Councilwoman Butler by phone Monday, “appropriate authority” provides civilian oversight of the police department. “The chief has control over the department. If you have a civilian in charge of the department there would be no need for an appropriate authority. But when you have a uniformed officer as chief, you need civilian oversight,” she said.

Ms. Butler expressed concern that since consolidation the council has not received any monthly reports from the police department. “Such reports give you a good idea of what is going on in the community and if the only way we can get these monthly reports is to become the ‘appropriate authority,’ then that is what we should be,” she said.

“In the former Borough of Princeton, we spent some time each month going over these reports as well police rules and regulations. This is a way to have transparency and accountability. The police are an enormous part of the municipality’s budget. Two thirds of the savings of consolidation are expected to come from the police department and I don’t think it is too much to ask Council to spend 10 or 15 minutes each month reviewing the activities of the department. If we don’t know whether crime has gone up or down how do we know where to make cuts. If the administrator is the appropriate authority rather than the Council, we don’t have direct access to such information and we should all be privy to that information at the same time,” said Ms. Butler.

Asked about the ordinance amendment in a phone interview Monday, Mayor Lempert explained that it comes after extensive research by the Public Safety Committee. The committee was tasked with examining the pros and cons of having appropriate authority reside with the mayor and council, the chief administrator, or the Public Safety Committee.

In the former Borough of Princeton, the appropriate authority was the Public Safety Committee, comprised of the Police Commissioner and two other Council members. In the former Township, the appropriate authority was the entire Council.

Not that either the former Borough or Township should necessarily serve as the model for the new consolidated Princeton, Mayor Lempert was quick to point out. The new municipality is now much larger than either.

“After much research, including, among other sources, consultation with the New Jersey State League of Municipalities and a New Jersey Treasury Department report, we found that for a town of our size it was universally recommended that the municipal administrator be the appropriate authority to provide professional oversight of the police department,” said Ms. Lempert.

“Most boroughs in the state of New Jersey are small. We are the fourth largest in the state. The Treasury Department conducted a report for the similarly large Borough of Sayerville and recommended changing civilian oversight of the police department there from the mayor and council to the chief administrator,” she said, adding that the reason was mainly to avoid politicizing the police department by having a professional administrator rather than elected politicians in that role.

But the argument that having “appropriate authority” lie with council amounts to a politicization of the police department is one that Mr. Martindell and others dismiss.

According to Mr. Martindell, the “argument that politicians should not have day to day control over police operations is an ‘irrelevant platitude.’ Were the governing body to appoint itself (or any committee of its members) as the ‘appropriate authority,’ elected officials would not be in charge of the day-to-day operations of the police: the police chief would be, as clearly stated in the pertinent state statute, N.J.S.A. 40A:14-118.”

“No one ever reasonably accused Princeton elected officials of engaging in political interference in police matters for as long as anyone remembers. In fact, the opposite is true: too frequently, governing bodies have been in the dark about local law enforcement, which has created much of the local police dysfunction that now exists,” said Mr. Martindell.

Councilwoman Jo Butler seems to agree that there is little risk of politicization were Princeton council to take on the role. “Council is accountable to the public,” she said. “With the Borough Form of government that we have here in Princeton, the appropriate authority should be the Council. If we had a different form of government that would be a different situation,” she said.

Princeton’s form of government is known as “The Borough Form,” one of many forms of local government in New Jersey. Often referred to as a “weak mayor-strong council” form, it contrasts with others such as, among others, the Township, Town, City, Village, Faulkner, and Mayor-Council Plan, also known as the “strong mayor” form, in which the mayor is independent of council and in charge of the administration of the municipality.

According to the New Jersey League of Municipalities, a Borough form of government may appoint an administrator and delegate all or a portion of the executive responsibilities to him/her.

While the ordinance amendment gives appropriate authority to the chief administrator, Ms. Lempert said that certain responsibilities will fall to the mayor and council. For example, they would handle police department rules and regulations; review police operations when necessary; receive monthly reports from the chief of police; appoint the chief and establish the size and rank structure within the department from time to time; fix the compensation of members of the department consistent with the terms and conditions of any applicable Collective Bargaining Agreements; handle police disciplinary matters within the governing body’s jurisdiction with regard to complaints filed with the Chief of Police, Public Safety Committee and Administrator; among other duties.

As the “appropriate authority,” the administrator would “coordinate with the police chief with respect to the day to day operations of the department” as well as “receive, review, and forward to the mayor and Council monthly reports.”

To read the proposed ordinance amendment prior to Monday’s public hearing, visit the municipal website: www.princetonnj.gov and select the draft ordinance from item 11 of the agenda of the Council meeting for September 9, when it was introduced.

In response to the concern expressed by Mr. Martindell and others, that by putting appropriate authority in the hands of the administrator, the mayor and council are in a “flight from responsibility,” Ms. Lempert said: “We have the opportunity to establish appropriate authority for the police department that is in line with the best practices recommended by the State of New Jersey and by experts in municipal governance. As a part-time council, we need to know when to delegate to our professional staff, especially when they have the time and the expertise to do the job.”

As far as Mr. Bruschi is concerned, his job will be to oversee the day to day operations of the police department in conjunction with the chief of police and act as a liaison with the governing body on matters of public safety. “It really is somewhat of a hybrid as some of the very critical items that would normally fall to the ‘appropriate authority’ are being directed to the governing body. Hiring and the rules and regulations of the department are two major examples. This continues to give the governing body a majority of the control.” he said Monday.

In anticipation of his new role, Mr. Bruschi plans to attend weekly Police Department meetings held by Captain Nick Sutter, currently acting as chief until a new chief is appointed.

 

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