CAMDEN, NJ – A Superior Court judge Monday temporarily blocked a planned Camden City Council vote that ultimately could put in the hands of voters a decision on whether to dismantle the city’s police department in favor of a county force.
Judge Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina decided to hear arguments June 11 on a complaint filed by Mayor Dana L. Redd and President Frank Moran that maintaining the department could cause the city “irreparable harm.” He issued an order preventing the city clerk from certifying before the Council a petition with more than 2,000 signatures requesting that Council vote on a proposed ordinance to maintain the department and, if the ordinance is rejected, the voters would get to decide what to do.
A vote had been scheduled for Tuesday. A rejection would send the issue to a special election within 70 days.
Fernandez-Vina said he saw no harm in hearing the arguments to determine “as soon as possible whether the petition passes muster.”
Redd and Moran filed the complaint several weeks after police union officials and community activists submitted the petition trying to stop a county force. The signatures on the petition were certified April 11.
The proposed force has the support of Gov. Christie and powerful local Democrat George E. Norcross III, among others. Norcross is an insurance executive and chairman of Cooper University Hospital, and an owner of Philadelphia Media Network, the parent company of The Inquirer.
The plan would dismantle the current department and rehire up to 49 percent of the current force, to avoid the provisions of an expired contract, county officials said.
Union officials and officers have decried the initiative — which started after unions and the city could not agree on negotiations and concessions, contributing to layoffs — as a union-busting maneuver that would not make the city safer.
The cash-strapped city, which depends for more than 70 percent of its budget on the state, laid off 168 officers in January 2011. Many were rehired, but 80 to 90 officers have since left the force for retirements and other reasons.
County and police officials said a regional force is necessary to improve public safety in one of the nation’s most dangerous cities.
The plan would start with a metro division that would police only Camden, boosting the number of officers on the street to around 400.
The complaint that City Attorney Marc Riondino filed argues that voters’ right to a referendum on municipal issues is limited and cannot constrain future city governments. It is an argument that New Jersey towns and cities, which are granted significant autonomy under state law, have made in the past.
“If the Council acts tomorrow, this becomes law. If this becomes law, it binds future governments,” Riondino told the court.
Thousands of dollars in current and future state aid could be jeopardized if the city failed to comply with a memorandum of understanding with the county and state to create the regionalized force, the complaint says.
In addition to Council and the city clerk, the complaint by Redd and Moran names several of the petitioners.
Fernandez-Vina asked Riondino to submit a brief about a possible conflict of whether as city attorney, he can sue Council.
“It seems to me you’re suing a current client,” the judge said.
City spokesman Robert Corrales said the city was pleased with the action.
“This was always about the safety of the residents of the city of Camden,” he said.
John Williamson, president of the Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Camden, said he wanted to see the legal process run its course.
“What actually shocks me is the fact that the mayor and the Council president have filed a lawsuit against the clerk and the other members of the City Council, restraining them from acting on a petition that spells out exactly what people want,” he said.