ATLANTIC CITY — The lack of transparency in the promotional process for police officers has once again raised questions about whether city residents are being afforded preference, as required by municipal law.
For the second time this year, a round of promotions in the Police Department is being scrutinized by residents and City Council for the appearance of ignoring a city ordinance that states a resident “shall be given preference over a nonresident in any instance when all other measurable criteria are equal.”
Al Herbert, a city resident and police officer, broached the subject Friday night to City Council following the recent promotion of 24 sergeants.
Herbert, who is a Neighborhood Coordination Officer in the 6th Ward, questioned why only four of the elevated officers were city residents when there is a “good ordinance” in place to reward those who live where they work.
The 24 sergeants were selected from more than 100 candidates. The starting salary for a police sergeant in Atlantic City is $100,000.
“When I go home at the end of the day, I go to sleep in the same neighborhood that I police,” he said. “But, with these promotions, it’s unclear as to whether or not that ordinance was adhered to. Part of the reason that’s difficult is because the promotion process has been very unclear.”
The concern mirrored one posed by 6th Ward Councilman Jesse Kurtz in February after seven officers were promoted to lieutenant, with only one being a city resident. Kurtz wanted to know “what role” the city’s “laws and ordinances played in the process” of police promotions since civil service had been suspended by the state under the Municipal Stabilization and Recovery Act of 2016.
The state has still not responded to his question, Kurtz said.
A representative from the state agency that oversees the city — the Department of Community Affairs — typically attends City Council meetings, but no one was present Friday.
“There’s a fundamental disagreement between the City of Atlantic City and the State of New Jersey as to whether or not residency is a qualitative advantage when looking at two equal candidates,” Kurtz said. “And, it’s been the position of this Council — and not just this Council and everyone up here, but it’s in our code. And it’s as clear as day in our code that there should be a preference.”
A five-member panel oversaw the police promotions, state officials have previously said, but no details about the selection process has ever been provided.
Anthony Swan, the city’s business administrator, said since the matter was part of ongoing litigation between the police department union and the state, the administration would not comment.
Matt Rogers, president of Police Benevolent Association Local 24, said reinstating civil service would eliminate all the uncertainty.
“It was just a matter of time before people started speaking out against (this process),” Rogers said. “There’s a lot of unanswered questions. I guess you could give (the state) a little leeway at the beginning, but three years into the takeover and they still can’t figure out how they’re going to operate this police department or who is actually calling the shots.”
Rogers also noted that the recently promoted sergeants only have “acting titles” since Superior Court Judge Julio Mendez’s impending ruling has the potential to overturn the state’s actions.
Council Vice President George Tibbitt said there were people promoted to sergeant who did not even live in Atlantic County and did not pass their civil service exams.
“We all talk about Atlantic City first, but when it comes up to help Atlantic City people first, it don’t happen,” Tibbitt said. “We’re in position, all of us, to protect these guys that chose to buy homes in Atlantic City. … They belong at the top of the list.”
Mayor Marty Small Sr., who assumed office in October, said the promotional process took place before his administration was in place. At the promotion ceremony for the 24 officers on Dec. 2 at the Atlantic City Convention Center, Small lauded the diversity among the sergeants as well as the candidates’ ties to the city.
“There were a lot of Atlantic City natives,” Small said. “(In) previous promotions, there were none.”