BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ - At Tuesday night's meeting of the Berkeley Heights Township Council, government officials and residents praised Mayor Cohen and wished him well in his new position as Director of the Governor's Office of Employee Relations. In addition, on a 4-1 vote, the Council approved an Administrative Code for the Township of Berkeley Heights but not before both the President of PBA Local 144 and Berkeley Heights Police Chief David Zager, as well as several residents, rose to oppose the creation of a Department of Public Safety as designated in the Code. The Council also voted 4-1 to introduce an ordinance providing penalties for the use of phosphate fertilizer. Finally, Republican Chairman David Ronner has offered the names of three candidates to the Township Council to serve as Interim Mayor: Robert Woodruff, Robert Miller and Ronner himself. The Council will vote on the candidates at an upcoming meeting.
Serving as Mayor at a Council meeting for the last time, Mayor David Cohen was recognized for his lengthy service to the Township of Berkeley Heights. Senator Tom Kean, Assemblyman Jon Bramnick and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz praised the Mayor and thanked him for his "years of work on behalf of the residents of Berkeley Heights." Later, Councilwoman Elaine Perna read a proclamation providing the Mayor's long record of public service and thanking him for serving the community.
The Council next tackled the Administrative Code. William Ives, President of PBA Local 144, said that the Code's creation of a Department of Public Safety is not necessary. He said that under the Code, there will be a position of Police Director who is over the Police Chief and could be a civilian without appropriate training. He noted that a Police Director's powers are strictly limited, including that the Director cannot operate a police vehicle. Ives stated, "having the position in the Code doesn't prevent the appointment of politically connected people" to the position of Director and having no Chief of Police. He asked the Council to remove the director position from the Code.
Berkeley Heights Police Chief David Zager addressed the Council. He said that there are several issues with the Code including that the testing requirements to become a Sergeant under the Code are not the current way that Sergeants are promoted by the Department. He said that the promotion of captains and the Chief are not discussed in the Code. Moreover, Zager said that more work needs to be done on the Code regarding the structure of the police department. He recommended the Council pull this portion of the code "until we have the opportunity to work together" and the Chief has an opportunity to do a presentation for the Council regarding the restructuring. "Don't fix what's not broken," said Chief Zager. "We have an outstanding police department. We have qualified individuals. Working together, the Department and the governing body can accomplish what we need to accomplish," he said.
Resident Tom Foregger asked several questions regarding the Director position and said, "I don't like to see you creating positions you don't intend to fill."
Resident Steven Faulk, a retired teacher, said that the Director position is "unnecessary" and "could undermine the integrity of the operation of the police department." "We don't need something added on that will increase the cost of living in Berkeley Heights," he added. "We don't need an infusion of non-expert personnel supervising professionals," he concluded.
Councilwoman Perna moved for adoption of the Code and Councilman Bruno seconded her motion.
Councilman Bruno said that he could not see the Chief of Police not being the Director but could see if the Chief retired that a Director could be appointed to help the new Chief. However, Bruno said the Director would not be a civilian. He added, "I'm not looking to put on one extra body we don't need." Councilman Hall said that "the logical default position" is that the Chief is the Director. However, he said he could envision scenarios that may require a Director. "I don't feel this changes the function of the police department at all," Hall said. "The Chief is the Chief Executive Officer of the Police Department," he added.
Mayor Cohen said he was surprised to hear these comments from Chief Zager because he and the Council had not received any comments from him in the six weeks since the Code was first proposed. Cohen added that the Chief also did not make any presentation to the Public Safety Committee regarding his concerns.
Councilman Nelson said that, "I firmly believe the reason the [director] position is there is ultimately to fill it." He said that the Mayor can be the appropriate authority for the Police Department but "we don't need a director…"
Councilman Pastore said that the Director position will be filled by the Chief. Councilwoman Perna agreed and said, "there is no plan in my mind to hire a separate director for the department." She continued, "to usurp the authority of the Police Chief where the department functions as it should would be ridiculous."
Perna said she was also confused about the argument made by several regarding the cost of a Director. She asked where was the police's concern about cost containment when a captain was exiled to the County for a year at a cost of $130,000. "Not one [officer] came up to talk about it," she said.
The Council then voted 4-1 to approve the Code as is.
The next item addressed is a fertilizer ordinance. The Council voted 4-1 to introduce it. Councilman Nelson said he feels the fines are excessive and asked the Council to minimize them. Councilman Hall countered that a $100 fine for third violation is reasonable. Councilwoman Perna added that it is State mandated for the Township to have a fertilizer ordinance and that the State could pull the Township's stormwater permit if it does not have one which would be "very detrimental to the town."
In their Council reports, Councilman Hall said that he will be introducing an ordinance to formally start the process to address inconsistencies between the Township's Master plan and the Township's ordinances. Councilman Pastore requested and received permission to start a committee to change the Township's website.
Councilman Bruno announced that he took his name out of consideration to be Interim Mayor. "I will remain as Council President," he said. He then read a letter from Republican Chairman David Ronner, which stated that the three candidates for Interim Mayor are Robert Woodruff, Robert Miller, and David Ronner. The Council will vote at an upcoming meeting to decide the winner from these three nominees.
Near the end of the meeting, Mayor David Cohen gave some final remarks. He said that Tuesday night's meeting was almost twelve years to the day that he first took out petitions to run for office. He called his time in public service "a great run" and spoke about the significant new ratables in Berkeley Heights including Summit Medical Group. He also said that there have been improvements in almost every department under his tenure, as well.