Public safety officials say Brigantine has created a potentially dangerous situation by allowing its police, fire and beach patrols to operate without permanent chiefs.
The leadership vacuum comes at the start of the summer tourism season as the city considers a restructuring of power amid strained labor negotiations. Meanwhile, departments are operating at reduced staffing following recent deaths, demotions and retirements.
Vince Sera, president of the Beach Patrol Association, said unfilled positions mean fewer supervisors. That could be a problem when guards respond to multiple emergencies, he said.
“Now I start to question: If I go in, is there someone coming who’s going to help me?” he said. “Up until this point, that’s something I didn’t have to worry about.”
City Administrator Jennifer Blumenthal said an interim decision regarding leadership may be made next week. Solutions could include hiring a temporary public safety director to oversee all three departments or appointing acting chiefs to fill vacant positions — but probably not both.
“That would be an expense that wouldn’t be worth it,” she said.
Mayor Phil Guenther, a Republican who opposes the director concept, said it’s time to end the uncertainty over leadership. He wants a permanent solution.
“I’m very disappointed that the members of council who hold the majority have not, along with the manager, taken action,” he said.
In last year’s election, Democrats took control for the first time since 1897 with a 5-2 margin.
For months, city officials have considered the possibility of consolidating public safety leadership into one director position. Together with reduced staffing via attrition, the proposal is part of a push to cut costs.
Combined salary costs for the three departments reached $8.8 million this year. According to payroll documents, 19 fire and 13 police employees earn more than $100,000 per year.
Those concerns exacerbated contentious labor negotiations between the city and its fire and police departments, with the Beach Patrol only recently entering the process. All three have operated since Dec. 31 without revised contracts.
“We’re really at a stalemate because we’re offering zero percent wage increases,” Blumenthal said. “That’s disagreeable to the labor union.”
The city also seeks to reduce salaries, potentially through concessions. That, too, has proved disagreeable, she said.
A confluence of recent events led to the leadership crisis:
n The death last week of acting Fire Chief Jim Holl, who himself had been appointed to the interim position more than a year ago, left his department without a leader. He was posthumously named chief by City Council.
n Ray Cox was stripped of his acting police chief title last month, within a month of succeeding retiring Chief John Stone. Blumenthal and Cox both declined to comment specifically on the demotion, although Cox said he’s consulting an attorney.
n Kip Emig was appointed acting chief of the Beach Patrol upon the retirement of Joe Guenther earlier this year, but his ascension left other gaps in the department’s leadership. Sera said it’s unclear when or whether Emig will assume the full title.
Despite being stripped of his title, Cox has assumed all of its responsibilities. With no other captains in the department, he said he serves both capacities, but with the limitations of a captain. For instance, Cox said, he had to obtain permission from the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office to sign documents that regularly cross the chief’s desk.
“What they’ve done is removed a key administrative layer, and I’m stuck doing it all,” he said. “And this is one of the most significant summers after Superstorm Sandy.”
While police salaries and wages remained about the same in the city’s adopted 2013 budget, its operating budget was cut 43 percent, to nearly $142,000.
Much of that was taken from the department’s vehicle replacement budget. With a seven-vehicle fleet that’s used nearly round the clock, Cox said, the department replaces two or three vehicles each year.
“Next year, we’ll start to suffer, and, in two years, we’ll be crippled,” he said.
Cox said the experience of the Fire Department — where Holl served as acting chief for more than a year without promotion — is worrisome to aspiring officers in both departments.
“The poor guy died and never had that title,” he said. “That’s not a real attractive situation.”
Together with the uncertain leadership, Cox said, it hurts the city’s ability to recruit officers and may force younger ones to look for better opportunities elsewhere.
Fire Capt. Thomas Bordonaro said no one in his department currently has the authority to speak on the record. No acting chief has been appointed at this time, he said.
Sera said he has grave misgivings about how operations will be run under a director. He remembers the dysfunction that existed the last time such a director was in charge, about 15 years ago. The difference then, he said, was that the three departments had permanent chiefs to run interference.
Now, they don’t.
“My biggest fear is you’re going to put someone in charge of Beach Patrol that’s more concerned with dollars and cents than public safety,” he said. “A lot of things work well on paper but don’t work in our world — the real world.”
Councilman Rick DeLucry said the departments need to “rationalize the compensation,” with a director being one possible avenue.
“We’re trying to balance: Be reasonable and fair to them and recognize that the gross cost (of salaries) is high,” he said.
Acting chiefs shouldn’t affect how departments operate, DeLucry said. And without one, the next highest officer would still ensure everything runs smoothly.
Cox said he’s concerned some policy directive will slip through the cracks because of reduced staffing. Such mistakes could lead to major litigation, he said.
“We have run quite well for a long time,” he said. “We just want to be left alone to do our jobs.”
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