Judge bars ballot question to preserve Camden police department

Posted: June 12, 2012

The fight to prevent the disbanding of Camden's police department in preparation for a regional force was struck a blow Monday when a judge ruled against putting the matter before voters in a special election this summer.

The ballot's proposed ordinance, which would have mandated that the city maintain its current department, would have placed undue restraint on City Council's ability to make future decisions about the force, Superior Court Judge Faustino J. Fernandez-Vina said.

City officials are preparing to dismantle Camden's police department and contract with a planned county force that has the backing of Gov. Christie and Mayor Dana L. Redd. Supporters of the restructuring — which would involve rehiring some personnel at lower pay and cutting benefits — say it could expand the force from 260 to 400 officers in Camden, which is routinely ranked as one of the most violent cities in the country.

Police union officials and city activists, who have called the regional force a union-busting maneuver, gathered 2,700 signatures in April in support of a ballot question to put the issue to residents. Before a date could be set, city attorneys filed an injunction to prevent the vote, arguing that the issue was a matter for elected officials and not the general population.

During Monday's more-than-one-hour hearing, lawyer Anthony Valenti, representing the union and activists, argued that the ordinance would not have restrained City Council permanently and thus was allowable.

"Ordinances are subject to appeal, so they are not binding," Valenti said.

The court decision is not expected to end the legal fight over the regionalized police force, proposed more than a year ago by Camden County Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr.

Opponents have asked the judge to block the county from creating the department, arguing that it would be a violation of state law. If City Council passes an ordinance dissolving Camden's force, there will be another petition drive to try to put the matter before voters, according to Camden Fraternal Order of Police president John Williamson.

"The fat lady hasn't sung yet," said Mary Cortez, a city activist.

State, city, and county officials have been in negotiations for months over terms of the reorganization and what state funds the county would receive for the new force. After decades of economic decline, almost two-thirds of Camden's budget comes from the state.

In an interview Monday, Cappelli said he expected the negotiations to be completed within a few months. The freeholder board is preparing to select a law enforcement official to oversee the transition to the new force, possibly as soon as a meeting scheduled for next week, he said.

"We're pretty much there [with the negotiations]. It's about fine-tuning the numbers," Cappelli said. "If we come to an agreement by the end of the summer, which I'm very optimistic we can, from there it would take six months to ramp up the department."

Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876, jaosborne@phillynews.com or on Twitter @osborneja.

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