Brigantine will begin interviewing candidates for public safety chiefs after more than a year of wrangling over who will lead the departments.
The move precedes a special election that could lead to the ouster of the interim public safety director, who was hired in lieu of the three chiefs as a cost-saving measure. City officials say the director has helped rein in expenses, such as overtime pay, but arbitration and court cases filed by fire and police employees have led to costly payouts.
A citizens’ petition earlier this year led to a special election, scheduled for May 13, that will cost the Atlantic County beach community an estimated $30,000. Permanent residents will be asked whether they wish to remove the public safety director position from city code. Brigantine has long had such a position in its code — it was a part-time post that paid $30,000 in the late 1990s — but the recent appointment of a full-time director paid a $70,000 salary has proved controversial.
“The interview and hiring process is a long one, so if voters decide to eliminate the director of public safety, then I’ll need heads of those departments,” City Manager Jennifer Blumenthal said.
A notice of the potential hirings was sent through the departments, she said, with a deadline to submit resumes this Friday.
Blumenthal said her goal, like that of the majority of City Council, is to eventually appoint chiefs, but she would like to maintain a public safety director to ease that transition.
Finding and keeping chiefs has proved problematic, however.
Ray Cox was promoted from police captain to acting chief, only to be stripped of his title less than a month later. A Superior Court judge subsequently ruled that Brigantine improperly removed Cox from the post, awarding differential pay and legal fees. The city has appealed the decision.
One of the four current fire captains turned down a promotion to acting chief last year. Last month, a labor grievance resulted in the captains splitting an additional $52,000 per year — more than the cost of promoting a single chief — when they work as the officer in charge.
An acting chief on the Beach Patrol was similarly removed from his position and currently serves as one of two assistant chiefs in that department.
In addition to the strife over departmental leadership, the city has been in the midst of protracted contract negotiations with its unions. Labor costs account for about 60 percent of the city’s most recent draft budget, something the new Democratic majority on council has pledged to reduce.
Blumenthal said she has to be careful that the officers chosen as permanent chiefs will be cooperative with the city and members of council because they would be nearly impossible to remove.
Councilman Anthony Pullella, a Democrat, said he’s optimistic that suitable candidates will step forward despite reluctance within the ranks to do so last year. If that doesn’t happen, he said, the city manager may be forced to seek candidates from outside the departments.
“I’m not in favor of that,” he said. “I’m hopeful that leaders — people with the skillset and ability to do the job — will apply so that she has the opportunity to appoint someone who will work with her.”
Pullella said he’d like to keep the public safety director post on the books to give the administration flexibility in the future, even if it’s left vacant in favor of chiefs.
Republican Mayor Phil Guenther, who supports the public safety director post’s removal, said he doesn’t believe the post has saved the city any money and hasn’t been vital to operations.
“It’s not like tomorrow the firetrucks won’t leave the station or patrol cars won’t be on the streets,” he said. “To be honest with you, you won’t even know he’s gone.”
And Guenther said he objects to the assertion that there haven’t been qualified chiefs candidates.
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “You have many people who have many years of experience, advanced degrees and military service.”
Voters may be the ultimate arbiters in how quickly chiefs are appointed, but the special election hasn’t prompted a surge of voter registration despite campaigns by groups on both sides of the issue.
On Tuesday, the last day of registration, City Clerk Lynn Sweeney said two new voters registered at City Hall. A total of 118 new voters have registered since Jan. 1, she said, but it’s impossible to tell how many intend to vote in the election. The special election was announced in March.
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