LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Township officials say they have no policy in place to limit the amount of time an employee is out on administrative leave, but they’re willing to take a look at implementing one, Mayor John Kehm said.
The discussion arose after township resident Carrie Starr-Grady called on the township to add a timeframe in the wake of police Lt. Don Johnson’s ongoing 21/2-year administrative leave.
Starr-Grady said during the regular Township Committee meeting last week that what is happening with Johnson’s leave is a disgrace.
“They need to put a window on these investigations so we, as taxpayers, don’t have to watch this take place.”
The township currently has a policy that limits medical and personal leave to six months, which can be extended with extenuating circumstances, Township Administrator Garrett Loesch said.
“I would think that because of the nature of administrative leave that it could be open-ended, and that is why it would be hard to have a policy,” Loesch said.
Township resident Art Mooney, who spoke out about Johnson’s administrative leave at last week’s committee meeting, would be in favor of implementing a policy to prevent history from repeating itself.
“I think it would protect the taxpayer and keep the powers that be on the job. The Township Committee has an obligation to make the taxpayers aware that there are circumstances beyond their control that they are required to do this, and some sort of reasonable explanation of how long it will take place,” Mooney said.
Johnson was placed on administrative leave 21/2 years ago and township officials, including police Chief Richard Buzby, have said in recent weeks that they cannot discuss the details surrounding his absence because it is a personnel issue and under investigation by the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office.
During the meeting last Thursday, Starr-Grady called on township officials to press the Civil Service Commission to implement regulations limiting the amount of time that can be taken for administrative leave, but this is not up to the commission.
Civil Service Commission spokesman Peter Lyden wrote in an email this week that paid-leave policies for non-state employees are set by local municipalities, fire districts, library or health boards.
Police Benevolent Association attorney Stuart Alterman was hesitant to say whether implementing a limit for administrative leave would be a good or bad thing for the township.
“I think that every case turns on its own case. My problem is that I don’t have all the facts of the Don Johnson case because they wouldn’t tell me anything. They’ve clearly created a practice for other people to be on leave for various reasons. I don’t think there can a timeline set in stone. It’s on a case-by-case basis,” Alterman said.
Since being placed on administrative leave, Johnson has been paid his full salary.
Johnson will earn $137,453 this year and under a new collective bargaining agreement he would be paid $140,202 in 2013 and $143,005 in 2014.
Kehm said he wishes the situation was different and that the township didn’t have to pay Johnson while he is on administrative leave.
Instituting a policy to place a timeframe on administrative leave is worth discussing with the Township Committee, Kehm said.
“It would be a great thing for the future. It would be more efficient and practical to have something like that in place. For example, with this situation there would be a limit and timeframe on the leave of absence. I would like to look into it before I make a decision,” he said.
But there are issues to consider before implementing such a policy, especially when it comes to administrative leave, he said. It may be possible to craft a policy with particular wording that could apply if an employee is involved in an ongoing investigation.
But ongoing investigations by outside agencies are part of the problem when it comes to an employee being placed on administrative leave, he said.
The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office has declined to comment on details surrounding Johnson’s leave because it is an ongoing investigation.
“When it’s out of our hands and a higher authority has taken over, we can’t do anything. And if there is an ongoing investigation I don’t know if there’s a limit that can put be on and if a deadline like that could eliminate an investigation,” Kehm said.