A citizens’ petition to eliminate Brigantine's public safety director may force City Council to decide on the controversial measure.
If city officials fail to either introduce or adopt the ordinance — which could precipitate the return of permanent chiefs — the issue will go to voters in a special election this spring. Officials have said the hiring of Dan Howard to the post in June was an interim measure designed to cut costs while they considered whether to name chiefs of beach patrol, fire and police. No decision has been made in the intervening months.
“This item on the agenda does force us to make a decision one way or another,” said Councilman Frank Kern, a Democrat. “I think it’s a positive thing that we move forward.”
Kern and other council members say they expect the ordinance to be introduced today, but they haven’t made a decision about the ultimate fate of the public safety director.
The ordinance was the result of a petition circulated by Concerned Citizens for Brigantine, representatives of which could not be reached for comment Tuesday. City Clerk Lynn Sweeney said the group obtained 525 valid signatures, more than 15 percent of the 3,099 votes cast in November’s general election required to bring the issue before City Council.
If City Council rejects the ordinance — a vote on the issue called earlier this month by Mayor Phil Guenther and Councilman Andrew Simpson, both Republicans, failed in a 5-2 vote — Sweeney said the special election would most likely take place this spring. Legally, such an election cannot take place during the primary but also cannot wait until the general election this November.
“Right now, I don’t have an estimate for what it would cost,” she said. “There’s a lot involved, from getting ballots printed to paying poll workers and getting machines.”
Recent special elections considered by Millville and Wildwood would cost those towns an estimated $60,000 and $25,000, respectively.
The latest petition followed another this fall that could have prompted a referendum to change the city’s form of government. That initiative never made it to the ballot due to objections the city raised to the language of the petition and the affidavits required to certify signatures.
Frank Koch, who organized the previous petition, said he was not involved in the newest one but supported its goal. This time, he said, the petitioners will be difficult to ignore.
“There’s such outcry for the council to do away with (the public safety director) position, we may see some movement on it,” he said.
The issue of who will lead Brigantine’s public safety departments has been a contentious one for more than a year, when the possibility of a director emerged amid last year’s budget deliberations. Labor costs account for about two-thirds of the beach community’s budget and the director was one proposal to cut costs.
Meanwhile, the city has been involved in protracted labor negotiations in which the director position has been one point of contention. It also appointed, then removed and was later forced by court order to reinstate acting police Chief Ray Cox. An appeal in that case is pending.
Many public safety employees have participated in both petitions, either as organizers or signatories. In the past year, public safety officials have publicly said the director position has hurt morale and led to confusion about who’s responsible for various aspects of departmental operations.
Guenther said most of the city’s elected officials have publicly supported reinstating chiefs, despite raising various concerns that kept them from voting in their favor.
“I hope they’ve had the time to change their minds and maybe avoid incurring the additional expense of a special election,” he said.
Councilman Rick DeLucry, a Democrat, said the petitions have become a way to “short-circuit” the democratic process and he won’t allow the threat of an expensive special election to affect his decision. He’s also concerned that possible candidates for the chiefs’ positions may not be willing to work cooperatively with the rest of city government.
“I don’t believe we should be legislating by way of petition,” he said. “I’m sure there will be other petitions. People will ask themselves, ‘What ordinance do we not like today?’”
Guenther, however, said Brigantine has a long history of petitions and referendums. Most of them failed to gain support from the larger electorate, he said, but it’s still a part of the process.
“I think in this case there was a feeling the majority of council was not listening,” he said. “When people feel council is disconnected ... then it can wind up on the ballot.”
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