TOMS RIVER — A Superior Court judge refused Tuesday to order the reinstatement of five Stafford Township police officers, saying he wasn’t going to make a decision about their financial situation and whether the budget-cutting move was warranted.
Superior Court Judge Vincent Grasso said Tuesday afternoon that it was not appropriate for the court to intervene “at this juncture.”
The township’s financial status should become clearer this week, as the township will hold a budget workshop Thursday and introduce its 2010 budget Tuesday.
The judge had granted Stafford Township Policemen’s Benevolent Association Local 297 an emergency hearing for an injunction on the dismissal of the five officers. The five officers were laid off to help close a $2 million budget shortfall, township officials said. Gov. Chris Christie has announced Stafford’s state aid was cut by $702,000.
In a three-count lawsuit filed last week, the police union claimed the township “failed to show the economic need” to lay off five officers.
PBA attorney Stuart Alterman argued that the layoffs were announced before the 2010 budget was even introduced, and there was no explanation.
Alterman said that during the hearing for last year’s budget, the township had a large surplus, but the township has refused to provide preliminary numbers for the 2010 budget.
“If we are shown a budget or financial documents that show deficits, then all right — but we haven’t seen it,” Alterman told the judge.
But Grasso said the union’s argument didn’t support him reversing the township and “therefore, I have to deny it.” He noted that other towns are also laying off police officers.
Alterman later said the judge gave “a pass” to the township with his decision, but he said the union’s lawsuit is still alive.
Kevin Riordan, a labor attorney for the township, disagreed.
“The judge made his decision based on facts and laws. He did not give us a pass. This judge does not give passes,” Riordan said.
Riordan said rich and poor municipalities throughout the state can decide how much to spend on police protection and that was what the township is doing.
“There is no irreparable harm. This is nothing other than a financial case,” Riordan said.
A crowd of about 20 police officers, friends and family sat in the courtroom. All five of the laid-off officers were present. Keith Oler, a 21-year veteran police officer, held his head in his hands when Grasso made his ruling.
“He (Grasso) gave the town a pass. The court is allowing the town to clean up what they didn’t do. They’re allowing them to introduce the budget next week. If the budget is not done, we’ll be back in court,” Alterman said. “This doesn’t mean they win the war. They prevail in a skirmish.”
Alterman argued that the layoffs would do irreparable harm to the officers, an argument Grasso also rejected.
Alterman said the PBA will continue with a three-count civil lawsuit filed last week that also claims Mayor John McMenamin acted without authority to make the layoffs and cannot legally hold the office of mayor because of a stipulation in a 2007 lawsuit settlement between McMenamin and the township.
In that settlement, McMenamin agreed not to seek re-employment with the township in return for $177,000. The money was paid to settle a whistle-blowing lawsuit in which McMenamin alleged he was passed over for promotion to chief.
“Judge Grasso said today in his chambers that the stipulation could be a cause for the mayor to provide a deposition as part of our complaint,” Alterman said after the hearing.
McMenamin could not be reached for comment.
The lawsuit also alleges the township refused to provide financial documents necessary for ongoing labor negotiations.
The five officers who were laid off March 31 were part of a budget-cutting move that officials said would save $600,000. The township has said it has a $2 million budget gap.
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