Camden County board race focuses on police merger

Posted: October 30, 2012

This fall's Camden County freeholder race is shaping up as a referendum on the future of county government, as candidates debate the planned takeover of Camden City's police department.

Republicans challenging for a spot on the all-Democratic freeholder board in the Nov. 6 election have been protesting the takeover for months, arguing that the county government is overstepping its mandate by creating a county-run force and taking on services better left to municipalities.

"We see [the county police] as another way to balloon a government where there's already a lot of high-paid people and a lot of cronyism," said Jim Pearce, a Berlin councilman and one of three Republican candidates seeking a seat. "We like small-town government . . . and the government on the county level is already a little too large."

Republican candidates Pearce, Ian Gill, and Eugene Lawrence are campaigning for three seats against Democratic incumbents Ian Leonard and Jeff Nash, and newcomer and Gloucester Township Councilwoman Michelle Gentek.

The county police force, which officials hope will turn into a regional force, is pitched as a way to put more police on the streets to fight Camden's decades-long crime problem. The city is on a path toward a record number of homicides this year.

"It's a public safety crisis," said Leonard, 35, of Camden. "If Camden is ever going to come back in a real way, you have to have incremental steps, and this is a way toward that."

The plan has attracted criticism from police chiefs and rank-and-file unions, while government officials have wondered whether regionalization might be the way of the future.

Gov. Christie and legislators including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) have encouraged local officials statewide to pool services traditionally handled town by town across New Jersey's more than 580 municipalities. Proponents say such reconfiguring would reduce the tax burden on residents who, according to the nonpartisan Tax Foundation, are the highest-taxed in the nation.

Leonard said he wouldn't be surprised to see towns and school districts merging on a large scale within the next two decades.

"You have to hold the line on taxes," said Nash, 54, of Cherry Hill, who has spent more than 20 years on the board. "Property-tax rates are too high, and placing a cap or going below the cap is imperative. . . . People want to see you're prudent with your money."

Gill, 46, of Mount Ephraim, is a paramedic and former Clementon councilman. Lawrence, 59, of Gloucester Township, is a workplace ethics consultant and launched that town's chamber of commerce. Pearce, 45, owns a swimming pool management company.

"Someone needs to do something and make some change," said Gill, who ran unsuccessfully for freeholder last year. "We need more people like myself to stand up and say, I want to make a difference."

Lawrence did not return phone calls for comment.

Nash is a lawyer with the Cozen O'Connor firm. Leonard is the state political director of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. And Gentek, 44, is a public relations executive for the New Jersey lobbying and consulting firm Fox & Shuffler.

Among Gentek's plans is boosting the county's downtowns, she said.

"We have to think of innovative solutions to keep taxes down and find ways to bring more economic development into the county," she said.

Camden County Sheriff Chuck Billingham, a Democrat, is also up for reelection, challenged by Republican Chris Leone-Zwillinger.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Camden County by 3-1. Last year, Lawrence and another Republican candidate took 41 percent of the vote, compared with the Democrats' 57 percent. In spite of Republicans' recent string of losses in county races, Pearce said he was in the race to win.

If elected, he said, he would reduce the role of county government. "I would start to sit with the various towns and say, 'What services can you do better?' " he said.

Contact James Osborne at 856-779-3876 or or follow on Twitter @osborneja.

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