BRIGANTINE — City officials voted unanimously Wednesday to introduce an ordinance that would eliminate the city’s controversial public safety director position.
The ordinance came before City Council as the result of a petition circulated by a local citizens group. That initiative gathered more than the necessary 15 percent of 3,099 votes cast in November’s election to appear before the governing body.
Earlier this month, officials voted down a similar measure proposed by Mayor Phil Guenther and Councilman Andrew Simpson, both Republicans. If the new ordinance failed to be introduced or fails to be adopted, the matter would go before voters in a special election this spring.
Dan Howard was appointed to the position in June after the chief’s positions in the departments of beach patrol, fire and police were vacated through a combination of death, removal and retirement. Howard is a retired police lieutenant from Mount Laurel, Burlington County, where City Manager Jennifer Blumenthal once served as township manager.
At the time of Howard’s appointment, city officials said it was a temporary measure while they investigated other options for filling vacancies in the departments’ leadership. Currently, the Police Department has an acting chief, Ray Cox, who was reinstated last fall through a court order.
The petition has forced City Council to confront the issue directly. While the topic has been debated widely, no firm decision has been made regarding who will lead the departments. Many Democrats on council have expressed support for returning to chiefs, but also have concerns that there are few, if any, qualified members of the departments who are willing to step forward. Republicans, meanwhile, say there are qualified candidates to fill the posts.
Meanwhile, the issue has proven controversial among residents and inside the departments. It comes amidst protracted labor union contract negotiations and was discussed as part of the rationale for another petition effort to change the city’s form of government. That initiative failed last fall.
Wednesday’s City Council meeting continued for more than five hours, including nearly three hours of public comment that predominantly focused on the public safety director issue.
Councilman Tony Pullella, a Democrat, said he’s supported naming chiefs since last year. The problem, he said, has been that so far the most qualified candidates have declined promotions.
The petition and its resulting ordinance, if approved, may put city officials in the awkward position of choosing a candidate from outside the department, Pullella said. That would hurt morale and cause further strife, he said.
“I don’t believe (chiefs) should be appointed by succession,” he said. “The selection process should be based on skill set and leadership qualities.”
For now, Pullella, like several other council members, said he supports the ordinance.
“I think it’s the right thing to do to move this community forward,” he said. “We’ll have to wait and see what the entire council does.”
City Clerk Lynn Sweeney said the next step for the ordinance will be a public hearing and vote at the council’s March 5 meeting. If approved, it would take effect about three weeks later.
“If it doesn’t, it has to go to a special election and that would be in the spring sometime,” she said.
So far, the city has not received a firm estimate on how much the election would cost. Recent special elections considered by Millville and Wildwood would cost those towns an estimated $60,000 and $25,000, respectively.
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