SOMERSET, NJ - Not everyone is happy with Franklin Township’s decision to scrap the Police Department’s top brass and put a civilian in charge, a move that township officials say will allow for greater oversight and control of day-to-day operations by the township manager and council.
The ordinance, which is set for a final vote and adoption on Aug. 13, sheds the position of chief of police and replaces it with a director of public safety and an officer in charge.
The director of public safety is a civilian position, which will oversee the administrative aspects of the department, while the officer in charge will serve as the township’s ranking law enforcement officer.
“The strictly law enforcement matters are done by the officer in charge and all of the administrative day-to-day operations of the department are done by the public safety director,” Franklin Township Attorney Louis Rainone said.
In a letter to the editor for TAPintoFranklin, Somerset County Freeholder Director Brian Levine expressed his concern that officers will be “undermined” by putting a civilian appointee in charge of the township’s law enforcement. He compared the situation to health insurance companies making medical decisions instead of doctors.
“I am angry that insurance company executives, with no medical experience, tell doctors how to practice medicine,” he wrote. “I do not want an analogous situation whereby a political appointee, with no public safety experience, tells our police what to do.”
If the ordinance is adopted the council's Administration and Financial Oversight committees will determine the qualifications and salary for the director.
At the July meeting where the council unanimously passed the law on first reading, Township Manager Robert Vornlocker, a former Franklin Township police officer, said job descriptions aren’t included in ordinances and that he will work with the township’s Human Relations Department to develop the requirements.
“I think I bring some credible source of information to the table as it relates to the Police Department, having spent 27 years of my career there as a police officer,” Vornlocker said.
Later in the meeting, he said that hiring a director of public safety “is not something we should take lightly. This is not something I make recommendations on without great consideration and great labor.”
The law renames the Police Department as the Division of Police, which will operate under the Department of Public Safety. Even though its leadership structure will change, the switch to the Division of Police is a change in name rather than function, according to the ordinance.
Township officials are seeking the changes to allow Vornlocker to have more control over the day-to-day operations of the Police Department.
“It is the manager and council’s determination that the transfer of the operational control of the Police Department to a department director who is not tenured and will supervise the day to day control of the department under the supervision of the manager and the Township Council will provide for substantially more transparency and oversight,” Rainone said in an email.
Levine, who was mayor of Franklin Township from 2004 to 2014 and served on the council from 1998 to 2003, worries that the new director will be a “well-paid figurehead” without substantial law enforcement experience. He said the position will “cost the town more money and deliver less service.”
Currently, a chief of police is hired from within the department. With a director of public safety, officials can expand their search beyond the township’s current crop of officers.
Levine said that not promoting from within will hurt morale.
“I fear our young and senior officers, who aspire to command positions, will be disheartened,” he wrote. “I fear a political appointee, who did not come through the police ranks, will leave our municipality in shambles.”
The township is looking to pass the ordinance on the heels of an on-duty officer overdosing on heroin, another officer charged with stealing used tires in West Long Branch and the council inviting the county prosecutor’s office to head the department and launch an evaluation after the abrupt retirement of the department’s top cops.
Police Chief Richard Grammar, a 32-year veteran who served as chief since 2018, and Capt. Gregory Borlan, who spent 30 years on the police force, both retired effective July 1. According to state records, Grammar and Borlan earned $197,472 and $170,991 respectively.
Earlier this month, the township announced that the prosecutor’s office uncovered rampant abuse of a form of time off available to officers, totaling almost 12,000 hours between 2016 and 2019, police records show.
By using “union leave,” a type of paid time off that officers use to attend PBA functions and is included in their contract, some officers were able to take thousands of hours off over the last three years.
Officials said in a statement written by Rainone that it’s common for officers to make limited use of union leave but it’s usually limited to PBA delegates and presidents.
The statement said the abuse went unnoticed for so long because state “law prevents the Township Council and manager from exercising effective oversight of the day-to-day management of the Police Department when that department is headed by a chief of police.”
Because the director of public safety will be functionally the same as any other department director, Vornlocker will have greater control of the department, Rainone said.
“Right now, the manager has no authority to interfere with, supervise, or manage the police chief on day-to-day operations,” he said. “But a director is supervised by the manager like every other director.”
Under a police chief, even though the manager is the “appointing authority” and technically responsible for the department, only the chief has authority over how the department is run, Rainone said.
Even though Vornlocker will have a closer relationship with the department, that influence is limited to non-criminal decisions.
“If a crime gets committed, the officer in charge is responsible for that and no civilian gets involved at all,” Rainone said. “The director of public safety and the manager are not going to sit in on meetings on how crimes are investigated, that’s just not going to happen.”
The ordinance is up for a final vote and adoption on Aug. 13 at 7 p.m.at the municipal building on DeMott Lane.
Editor's note: Story updated with additional details from the township regarding qualifications of the safety director position and the status of retired vs. resigned was updated as well.
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