STAFFORD TOWNSHIP — Several hundred local police officers and township residents packed Tuesday’s Township Council meeting in a show of support for five police officers who face being laid off by the end of March.
The township has proposed the layoffs as a way to close a $2 million budget gap; laying off the five officers will save the township $600,000.
But on Tuesday night, police officers from around the county attended the meeting and urged officials to find another way.
“Besides the five individuals being laid off, the only other people being hurt by this are the citizens of Stafford Township,” said Lacey Township Police Chief William Nally.
Nally told council that interference and meddling in the police department by township Administrator James Moran and Mayor John McMenamin, a former police officer, are destroying a proud and once highly respected police department.
“Reduction in personnel is poor public policy,” said retired Harvey Cedars Police Chief Jerry Falkowski.
The township’s top patrolman salary is $96,000, according to Moran. The township is in negotiations with the PBA for the Police Department’s 2009 and 2010 contracts.
Council chambers held 118 people and another 200 people were seated in the overflow room where a television broadcast the meeting. The Policemen’s Benevolent Association set up a trailer in the parking lot and served coffee and doughnuts to the police officers and members of the public who attended the meeting.
Emotions ran high at Tuesday's meeting and at one point, McMenamin told a Press of Atlantic City reporter and photographer to leave the meeting, while allowing another newspaper photographer to stay. The Press staff refused, citing their right to be at a public meeting.
Police Chief Thomas Conroy asked McMenamin if he wanted to sign a criminal complaint against them. McMenamin declined to sign.
Little Egg Harbor police Chief Richard Buzby said the police in southern Ocean County are a team. He added that police layoffs will hurt law enforcement efforts overall.
“I think there’s probably another way to address this, and I ask you with all my heart to consider finding another way to do that,” Buzby said.
The five officers who will be laid off are Chris Smith, a seven-year veteran who left the Barnegat Township force to work in Stafford Township; Mark Flanagan, who has been on the department for three years; Keith Oler, a police officer for 21 years — 19 of them spent at the Ship Bottom Police Department; and Edward Kunder, who recently arrested Bloods gang members on weapons charges.
The department has 57 police officers for a township of 26,282 residents.
McMenamin told the crowd that the township has offered the Local PBA 297 the same deal offered to every other union in the town. McMenamin said there will be no layoffs if the union takes the township’s latest offer and one furlough day a month.
“We have to go ahead and start planning for layoffs if they don’t go ahead with the furloughs,” McMenamin said.
During the public portion of the meeting, McMenamin said the PBA 297 was offered a contract with no raises in 2009, and 3 percent raises in 2010, 2011 and 2012. Police officers would have to take one furlough day a month. McMenamin said the PBA has not responded to the offer.
Repeatedly on Tuesday night, McMenamin said the layoffs are up to the PBA 297 accepting the township’s offer.
Smith wore a T-shirt Tuesday night with a photo of his two young children that said, “I love you daddy." Oler, Flanagan, and Kunder were on duty and in uniform and sat inside council chambers for the meeting.
Conroy read from a prepared statement and told the council and crowd that he is concerned about public safety in the township because of criminal activity such as gangs moving in.
“I’m not doing this as a vindictive measure or vendetta,” McMenamin said.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep these people in work. We’re offering the furloughs and incentives on the back end for people retiring. It’s not in our hands, it’s in the PBA’s hands,” he said.
McMenamin is a former Stafford police lieutenant. He retired from the force in 2006 and filed a lawsuit against the township saying he wasn't chosen as police chief because he spoke against alleged corruption in the department. Conroy was made chief instead of McMenamin. The lawsuit was settled out of court.
Last fall, Conroy filed a lawsuit accusing McMenamin and the Township Council of overstepping their authority and interfering with the Police Department.
Kevin Lyons, a police officer in Long Beach Township, PBA state delegate, school board member and township resident addressed the council during the public portion.
He said the mayor has participated in unfair labor negotiations and accused him of negotiating in the media and not with the police force.
“Negotiate with your people,” Lyons said. “Please respect my police officers as much as I respect your positions. Show us the financials — sit down at the table and talk to us,” he said.
“We have to make responsible cuts. I have many concerns regarding the five layoffs. To decrease the police force by five people is a disservice to the town,” Lyons said.
The crowd in both rooms erupted into applause when Lyons finished speaking.
PBA 297 attorney Stuart Alterman spoke on behalf of the PBA.
“What you’re doing by engaging in negotiating in public is indeed an unfair practice, and we will take the appropriate action,” Alterman said.
Alterman and Moran argued back and forth about what financial documents have been received.
“You’re going to be gutting the public safety part of the township. What you’re doing is jeopardizing your taxpayers because you wish to meddle in the police department. We do want and still need to receive all the financials we’ve requested,” he said.
Galloway Township and Egg Harbor Township have also notified police of layoffs due to budget constraints. Forty employees in Wildwood have been notified by officials that their jobs may be cut.
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