BRIGANTINE — The future of the city's public safety director will be decided by voters this spring as City Council rejected an ordinance Wednesday to eliminate the controversial position.
A citizens petition signed by the necessary 15 percent of voters in November's election brought the measure before council. Next, the issue will go to a special election.
Solicitor Fred Scerni said the city will have 10 days to make any changes to the ordinance and possibly approve it. After that period, he said, Brigantine will have a 40- to 60-day window in which to hold the election.
As of Tuesday, City Clerk Lynn Sweeney said she had not received an estimate for the cost of such an election. Recent special elections considered by Millville and Wildwood would cost those towns an estimated $60,000 and $25,000, respectively.
Wednesday's vote followed a similar measure proposed last month by Mayor Phil Guenther and Councilman Andrew Simpson, both Republicans. Both measures failed by a 5-2 margin, with the recently elected Democratic majority voting to keep the interim public safety director.
While the public safety director position has long been a part of the city's code, it drew the ire of many in the beach resort when Dan Howard was appointed to fill the position in June after chiefs’ positions in the departments of beach patrol, fire and police were left vacant. City officials said Howard's position would be an interim measure while they considered their options for the leadership of those departments, but no firm decision has been made since.
Budget concerns have played a large part of the controversy. Labor costs account for about two-thirds of Brigantine's budget, and the city has been in the midst of fraught contract negotiations with each of the departments' labor unions.
Council deliberated Wednesday in front of a crowd of about 50, who spoke out both in favor and in opposition of the public safety director position. The issue has been a controversial one, factoring into a previous failed petition that would have proposed changing the city's form of government.
The Democrats who opposed the ordinance said they had been elected by a majority of the city in order to reign in expenses. So far, they said, Howard has done just that.
"I cannot support an ordinance that would take us backward instead of forward," Democratic Councilman Frank Kern said.
Councilman Tony Pullella, also a Democrat, said he, like most of council, supports bringing back chiefs but believes the ordinance would tie the hands of the City Manager Jennifer Blumenthal in how she manages the city.
Instead, he said, the city needs to find leaders within the departments who will work with the city to make sure services are provided efficiency.
"I don't believe in chiefs by succession," Pullella said.
The same sentiment was echoed by Democratic Councilman Rick DeLucry, who added that the fire department in particular has resisted the changes necessary to make the city more fiscally solvent.
Guenther, the Republican mayor, said he has not supported the concept of a public safety director and worries the city could end up paying for his salary, currently $70,000, and permanent chiefs.
"This is about negotiating in good faith (and) moving forward with contracts that make sense," he said.
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