Law & Justice

Berkeley Heights Council Pulls Police Ordinance to Fine-Tune Qualifications

Credits: TAP Staff

BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - Township officials are aiming for a more educated police force. However, there are a few different opinions among officials about how to achieve that education goal.

An ordinance originally scheduled for introduction at Tuesday’s Township Council meeting would have required starting police officers, instead of only possessing a “high school diploma or equivalent” to have a bachelor’s or higher degree awarded by a degree-granting college or university. It also would have admitted for employment qualified veterans to substitute a combination of two years of full-time, active military service and an associate’s degree.

Resident Carol Matula, however, said there may be many potential police officer candidates who could not afford the expense of attaining a bachelor’s degree. She said an associate’s degree or non-college experience should be allowed.

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However, Police Chief Michael P. Mathis said he supported the move toward a bachelor’s degree requirement “100 percent.” The chief said that, although this would give him a smaller pool of applicants from which to choose, it would weed out those candidates who simply would take the police entrance examination and didn’t have a serious intention of pursuing a law enforcement career.

He added, however, that the township should allow those with four years of military service and an honorable discharge to be considered along with those who had served in the reserve or national guard for two years and had at least 30 college credits.

Mathis also said some preference should be given to township police dispatchers who had college credits and were working toward a degree. He said the township already had made an investment in such candidates and they knew how the department functioned and the township did not want to lose its investment.

Although supporting the allowing of military background, Councilman and mayoral candidate Robert Woodruff said the council was trying to set a new standard with the college education requirement and he felt giving a special exemption to dispatchers could “put holes in” this standard.

Woodruff said township dispatchers should meet the same educational requirements as other applicants and asked, if an exemption was allowed for dispatchers, what was to prevent many applicants from using this route to get around the new, stricter education requirements.

The chief replied the dispatcher situation could be corrected by requiring dispatchers without degrees to obtain them after, for example, 10 years on the job.

Councilmen Kevin Hall and Thomas Pirone agreed with Woodruff that a bachelor’s degree should be required, although Hall said perhaps the state trooper requirement of 90 credits upon employment with a certain time required to complete a degree would be acceptable.

Mayor Joseph Bruno, who is running for reelection, replied that allowing candidates to enter the force without having completed a degree would enable them to complete their degrees “on the public dime.”

He added that the current Policemen’s Benevolent Association contract says that officers must pay for completion of their degrees on their own.

Township Administrator Linda Cavanaugh said that, when preparing the ordinance, she had thought it would allow a candidate who was a senior in college at the time he applied to complete  his course work as long as he had a degree when he took the police qualification examination.

Council members and Bruno went along with this approach.

The ordinance scheduled to be introduced Tuesday was pulled from the agenda to make the suggested adjustments in educational requirements.

In another action at Tuesday’s session, the council approved an ordinance allowing the township to adopted its 2014 municipal budget at an appropriation increase of 3.5 percent over last year’s level.

This $456,412.18 increase will mean a tax boost of about $79 on the average township home, assessed at $307,000, Bruno said at the last council session.

Governing body members also unanimously adopted a resolution agreeing with a planning board recommendation to designate the area surrounding the current municipal complex as an area in need of redevelopment under state land use law. The designation gives the township more power to acquire private land and perform other actions to encourage development.

This action is seen as a possible precursor to a land swap with Little Flower Church that will enable the township to erect a new municipal complex on land currently owned by the church. Negotiations surrounding a possible contract with the church were the subject of an executive session of the council preceding Tuesday’s regular council meeting.

However, prior to the vote, resident Tom Foregger said in the short period the council took to examine the data supporting the planning board resolution it did not have enough time to review all 25 exhibits presented to the planning board when it was considering the designation.

Foregger also said, as required in the statute defining a “blighted area” or area in need of redevelopment, the planning board presented no evidence that the designation would help promote the health, safety and moral welfare of the community. The board also did not meet other criteria in the statute, he said.

Matula, who has sued the township in an attempt to stop the land swap with the church, asked Bruno if he had relied only on the planning board report or if he had considered oral testimony before the board in making his decision on the designation.

The mayor said he relied on a reading on the complete transcript of the planning board meeting where the designation resolution was approved.

On another measure, the council voted to allow special use permits for limited time periods for certain activities in areas where those activities normally would be precluded under municipal land use law.

A non-refundable fee of $250 would have to be paid by the owners of the land in question and certain other requirements would have to be met.

Replying to a question from Matula, Township Attorney Joseph Scrivo said the measure was not directed at residential property owners but rather at uses such as farmer’s markets.

Also, in rccognition of Tuesday’s celebration of Earth Day and his 13 years of service as a member and co-chairman of the township environmental commission, Len Berkowitz was presented by the mayor with a proclamation honoring him as a recipient of the Governor’s Excellence Award for Environmental Stewardship.


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