MULLICA TOWNSHIP — The township committee made its final move to accept the chief of police’s retirement in a special meeting Saturday.
Chief John Thompson will serve until Jan. 1, 2020, in an advisory capacity, meeting weekly with the acting chief, Capt. Brian Zeck, to ensure a smooth transition of leadership in the police department, according to Committeewoman Kristi Hanselmann.
Thompson’s retirement has stirred up mixed feelings in the tight-knit, rural township in recent weeks after it was revealed Thompson was the subject of an internal affairs investigation, the details of which have not been disclosed.
The township committee in June proposed and then pulled a vote on a settlement with Thompson over the investigation and then gave him a pay raise and six months of paid administrative leave with the understanding he would retire at the end of the year.
Zeck, the son-in-law of Mayor Chris Silva, already had taken over as acting chief July 1 when Thompson apparently withdrew his retirement paperwork from the state and rescinded a request for paid leave.
The resolution accepting Thompson’s retirement was the only agenda item before the township committee Saturday when it met in the tiny meeting room inside Town Hall.
Neither Silva nor Committeeman John Brown was present for the meeting. Nor was Thompson.
After the meeting, Deputy Mayor Larry Riffle had no comment on whether Saturday’s vote would put to rest any of the controversy in the town over the chief’s retirement. Riffle also could not say when the internal affairs investigation began.
“I thought it was a relatively good meeting,” Riffle said. “I didn’t see too many people with questions there present.”
Only a handful of residents were present for the meeting, and just two spoke — Barbara Rheault, a local teachers union representative who oversaw public safety when she served on township committee last year, and Barbara Sarraf, the wife of township officer P.J. Sarraf, who Thompson tried to fire last year due to his inability to work overnight shifts because of medical issues.
Rheault said she did her due diligence when the issue arose regarding P.J. Sarraf’s employment and the township received several anonymous letters alluding to the chief and misconduct, which were forwarded to the county prosecutor’s office.
“He conducted his work and managed our police department, and supervised our police department. And while there were incidents that had occurred throughout that period that may have been troubling to some, he did conduct his business faithfully to this township,” she said of Thompson.
Rheault said that the prosecutor’s office declined to investigate the chief and that matter was referred back to the township to take action. She said in the year that she served, there was no internal affairs investigation into Thompson. She asked the committee what had changed in the last year.
Rheault said she tried to get more information through Open Public Record Act requests but only received heavily redacted responses, and that she has been attacked personally and professionally for speaking out about Thompson’s retirement. She plans to file ethics violations in the matter.
Riffle said it was only Rheault’s opinion that there were ethics violations, but that was not the reality.
Sarraf defended the committee’s action.
“As a person that’s kind of been involved with everything that’s been going on, anything that has gone on with the chief, they were all by his own actions,” she said. “The only thing that was unethical was what he tried to do last year, which made the papers, in trying to fire my husband.”
Sarraf said those in power in Mullica let far too much go on in the police department in prior years that led up to Saturday’s action.
“If you’re a decent ethical person, maybe things wouldn’t have ended up this way,” she said.
Riffle said the retirement notice being accepted Saturday was the same one Thompson submitted June 24. A second notice of retirement was submitted by Thompson on July 30 as a clarification, Riffle said, and Thompson agreed to have it shared publicly.
As part of the chief’s contract, he is being paid for the last six months of his employment and shall make himself available daily for the department but will not control its day-to-day actions. In addition, this is not a paid leave.
Resident Robin Garwood asked if Thompson will still have a car, gun and arresting power, which the committee said he would.