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Sayreville officials disagree on police hirings

Eric Sucar
Various members of law enforcement gather outside of the Great Auditorium prior to the 33rd annual New Jersey Enforcement Memorial Service held in Ocean Grove on May 23. Police officers from throughout New Jersey gathered for the annual service to remember those who lost their lives in the line of duty.

By Matthew Sockol
Staff Writer

SAYREVILLE – The employment list currently being used to fill vacancies in the Sayreville Police Department remains a debated topic for borough officials and residents.

At a meeting on May 22, the Borough Council voted 4-2 against returning the borough’s current employment list for police officers to the state and requesting a new list. The vote was taken after the council was informed that a new employment list for officers was available from the state.

The decision to not request a new employment list follows the council voting 4-2 to acknowledge five vacancies in the police department, allowing for new officers to be hired, at a special council meeting on May 1.

When the topic was raised at the May 22 meeting, Council President Daniel Buchanan said the department currently has 86 officers, down six from the 92 officers the borough had in 2016.

During the special meeting, borough labor attorney Bob Clarke stated that Sayreville had only one employment list for police officers.

“There is another list that is forthcoming at some time in the future,” Clarke said at the May 1 meeting. “It does not exist now. If tomorrow morning, we asked for a list, there’s not another list [the state] could give us except for the one we have right now.”

However, Councilman Pat Lembo said that there was a new hiring list during the May 22 meeting.

“Our labor attorney told us at the [special meeting] that there was no new list available [and] if we were going to hire, it had to be from the old list,” Lembo said. “Turns out he was unfortunately mistaken. There was a new civil service list available as of [the special meeting]. We could have called for that list. It would be my suggestion that we do the right thing and do that now.”

In response to Lembo’s comments, borough attorney Michael DuPont said he would speak to Clarke, who was not present at the meeting.

Resident David Pawski, a sheriff’s officer with Middlesex County and a candidate for Borough Council, also spoke about a new hiring list.

Pawski informed the council he contacted the Civil Service Commission and was told that the new list became active in March.

The new list, according to Grace Kelly of the Civil Service Commission, was issued on March 29. Although Sayreville’s current list has expired, it is considered active until its disposition due date, which is July 1.

The current employment list the officers would be hired from has been a source of concern for residents. According to borough officials at the May 1 meeting, the list exhausted all veterans and council members Victoria Kilpatrick and Mary Novak had family members on the list.

Kilpatrick and Novak voted on declaring the vacancies on the advice of DuPont, who said no conflict existed as long as the relatives were not financial dependents of theirs.

After Pawski spoke before the council, a motion was made to return the current list and request the new list.

Lembo and Councilman Steven Grillo, who had voted against declaring the vacancies, voted yes on the motion.

Buchanan, Kilpatrick, Novak and Councilman Ricci Melendez, who had voted in favor of declaring the vacancies, voted no on the motion.

“I believe that we should have our legal representation discuss this with labor counsel as there may be potential litigation issues,” Buchanan said. “So let’s get this right and not go the wrong route just because you want to make a point. We have [another] meeting before we actually have to hire.

“I don’t know if there’s been letters sent out to individuals already [and] I don’t know if there’s been background checks on people already since the last meeting,” Buchanan said. “If we’re going to do this, be prepared for potential litigation from those who will be affected.”

“I have concerns over litigation, as does Mr. Buchanan,” Kilpatrick said. “I don’t want to see us opened up to a lawsuit. I don’t know where the police department is in their hiring process right now. I will be voting no until we have that information.”

“I’m not an expert in this area [of litigation],” Melendez said. “The attorney advised [Novak and Kilpatrick to vote], so I’m going to vote no.”

“On the advice of our labor attorney, I will be voting no,” Novak said. “His reasons in closed session were a little different from his reasons [in public], so I can’t comment. But it had to do with civil service rules, as well as borough ordinances.”

The council’s action and comments about litigation prompted a response from resident and former councilman Art Rittenhouse.

“[In regards to] the concern about litigation, I would be concerned because of the conflict of interest that’s appearing,” Rittenhouse said. “Each time there were any police matters when I was on the council, the mayor and I both asked that Mary either abstain or not be in the room due to the fact that her husband is a retired police officer, her daughter is a police officer in a different community and her son is a police officer here in Sayreville.

“The appearance of this is not good,” Rittenhouse said. “And I know Mr. DuPont has always said that there’s not a conflict. However, the ordinances are very clear. I think you’re going to have litigation due to this.”

Resident Fred Block asked if borough officials would know if the family members would also be on the new employment list, to which Mayor Kennedy O’Brien said officials would not know until after they received the list.

“On the current list, there are family members,” O’Brien said. “That doesn’t mean on the new list there wouldn’t be family members.”

O’Brien and Buchanan emphasized that no police officers had been hired yet.

“[The action taken at the special meeting] wasn’t a vote to hire, it was a vote to select candidates,” O’Brien said.

“We had to determine how many vacancies the council felt that there were [in the police department],” Buchanan said. “The council doesn’t get a say in who’s hired until after the background checks are done by the police, the interviews are done by the police and they make their recommendations on who gets hired. We just needed to say if we have vacancies.”

Buchanan reasoned that declaring the vacancies was necessary because the police department was understaffed. When asked by Buchanan, Business Administrator Dan Frankel said the officers who were performing shift work on a May 19 road project were working overtime.

Contact Matthew Sockol at msockol@newspapermediagroup.com.

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