High court to weigh on Camden citizens' rights to vote for new police force

Posted: March 23, 2014

The state's highest court will consider whether Camden residents should have been allowed to vote on the disbanding of its police force two years ago.

The case, headed to the Supreme Court, is unlikely to affect the current Camden County Metro police division but could have implications on how local governments and petitioners interact on divisive issues.

Many of the petitioners who challenged the city two years ago say they're no longer fighting to roll back the new force but for the rights of citizens.

"It's not about the police anymore, this is our right to petition government," said Eulisis Delgado, a onetime outspoken critic of the changeover who now works with the police. "That's how Democracy works. The people speak. These politicians forget they work for us."

In December 2011 the city passed an ordinance to eliminate its department for a county force in what critics have called a union busting move.

Protests began throughout the city and a group of petitioners secured 2,800 signatures asking City Council to vote on a proposed ordinance to maintain the force. If the ordinance was rejected by Council, the matter would go to referendum.

But, instead, Mayor Dana Redd and Council President Frank Moran filed an injunction against the petitioners, declaring the proposed ordinance invalid. It was initially upheld by then-Superior Court Judge Faustino Fernandez-Vina, who said it would create "an undue restraint on the future exercise of municipal legislative power."

An appellate court in October overturned Fernandez-Vina's ruling, citing the Faulkner Act, which gives voters the right to propose ordinances, or put them on the ballot, except for certain matters, such as municipal budgets.

Lawyers for Redd and Moran asked the high court to rule on the appellate decision, which they called a mistake. The court will also consider whether the referendum was in itself valid or whether it would be preempted by the state's takeover plan for the city, an issue the appellate panel charged the lower court to take up.

"At a minimum, a decision in favor of the petitioners would hold that the proposed ordinance was valid and should have moved forward and would at least pave the way for a new petition to be pursued if that were the determination," said Anthony Valenti, attorney for the petitioners. "Certainly, whatever decision they make is going to have precedential value."

Redd's attorney, John Eastlack, said, "Judge Vina found that these concerned citizens were essentially infringing on the rights of an essential function that only City Council can perform."

He said the state's aid and transition plan for the city included the police takeover, which preempts the ordinance.

"This was an important part of the scheme that was laid out by the state, which represents a greater vision to bring to this city that has struggled and that is starting to turn around."

In Camden, 327 officers are now on patrol, with an additional 66 scheduled to graduate the academy in June. Police have touted drops in violent crime in 2013 compared with 2012, when Camden had an all-time high of 67 homicides and a greatly understaffed force. Many of the critics once holding loudspeakers denouncing the new force are now championing it.

Councilman Brian Coleman, the only member to vote against the new police force, said in a recent interview that the police presence in his neighborhood of Whitman Park has increased and driven down some of the open-air drug market activity.

Delgado, who once protested on the steps of the police administration building dressed as Santa Claus with a wish list that read "Keep police force, replace police chief," attended a county freeholder meeting this week and complimented Metro advocating for regionalizing of police forces in neighboring towns.

"They're doing a superb job," Delgado said. "These are real cops, like any normal city, I want my city protected. These guys are doing it."

Vance Bowman, one of four original petitioners named in the lawsuit, said "We have a force, and it's working. We were fighting because we didn't want change but if change works, I'm not going to go against it."

Bowman said he's still hoping the Supreme Court rules for the petitioners because the present situation, he said, doesn't erase the past. "At the end of the day, we should have had an opportunity to choose. We should have that right in the future."

A date for the Supreme Court motions has not yet been set. Fernandez-Vina, who is now a Supreme Court justice, is expected to recuse himself from the case.


jterruso@phillynews.com

856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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