By Matthew Sockol
SAYREVILLE – The Sayreville Police Department will have five new officers amid concerns over the employment list they will be hired from.
At a special meeting on May 5, the Borough Council acknowledged five vacancies in the department in a 4-2 vote.
Council President Daniel Buchanan and council members Ricci Melendez, Victoria Kilpatrick and Mary Novak voted yes on acknowledging the five vacancies. Councilmen Steven Grillo and Pat Lembo voted no.
According to Police Chief John Zebrowski, the department seeks to have a total of 89 officers. As of the meeting, the department had 86 officers and there are three impending vacancies during the year: two during the summer months and one in October.
With three current vacancies and three pending, Zebrowski said the department asked for six new officers for the year.
Prior to voting on the vacancies, the council went into closed session to discuss the matter. According to Mayor Kennedy O’Brien, the council declared five vacancies in an unofficial vote during that closed session.
However, a source of concern regarding the incoming officers’ employment list was the absence of military veterans. Under state law, veterans applying for a civil service position in New Jersey are placed at the top of employment lists, regardless of test scores.
The borough’s current employment list for incoming police officers, according to O’Brien, is approximately 2-3 years old and has gone through 40 applicants. The list will expire in early July.
Sayreville’s police academy begins in early August, according to O’Brien.
When resident and veteran Ed Strek asked if any of the five applicants eligible to become officers were veterans, O’Brien said they were not. Borough labor attorney Bob Clarke said he was told the current list exhausted all veterans.
Resident Stanley Drawl, a veteran and the service officer of Sayreville’s Veterans of Foreign Wars post, was concerned that positions were deliberately being taken from veterans.
“If it was an emergency and the commanding officer said [the police department] had to have three spots, I would support that,” Drawl said. “But if we go beyond, it gives me the impression of trying to block spots. There are several articles from this year where towns blocked lists to avoid hiring veterans.”
Doug Gumprecht, a police officer and member of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association in Sayreville, noted that test scores had been completed for a new employment list.
“There are scores ready to be published at this point,” Gumprecht said. “If the governing body chooses to close the current list as early as tomorrow, they can certify a list to include veterans.”
Clarke emphasized that only one employment list existed in the borough.
“There is another list that is forthcoming at some time in the future,” Clarke said. “It does not exist now. If tomorrow morning, we asked for a list, there’s not another list [the state] could give us except for the one we have right now.”
Resident Art Walczak, a retired police officer whose son served in the military, argued that a new employment list could be quickly issued.
“In 2013, my son was in Afghanistan getting shot at [and] came home in one piece,” Walczak said. “[He] didn’t get to take the civil service test because [the state] delayed it one year. So this list that you’re talking about is already one year beyond what it should be. You keep saying there’s only one list. You could turn this list in [and] certify the new one.
“The academy doesn’t start until August,” Walczak said. “So why do we have to hire off of this old list?”
Potential conflicts of interest for the council were another source of concern. As stated by O’Brien, Novak’s son and Kilpatrick’s brother were on the employment list.
Novak said she was told by borough attorney Michael DuPont, who was not in attendance at the meeting, that she could vote on the matter because it was not an ethical problem as long as the child is not a dependent.
Kilpatrick stated that her brother was not a dependent of hers.
Drawl, a former Sayreville councilman, and Gumprecht questioned DuPont’s opinion.
“There was a council person in Franklin Borough who at the time was voting against certain things because they had family on there,” Gumprecht said. “It wasn’t a dependent. The council person was charged with numerous ethic violations and it was sustained for at least two of those.”
“Having been a councilman for two terms, we never had to have a legal expert tell us what was ethical or not,” Drawl said. “Many of us abstained [because] we went to high school with somebody [or] somebody lived in the neighborhood just for the way it looks to the public.”
After the concerns were raised, the council voted on declaring the five vacancies. Opposed to the council’s motion were Grillo and Lembo.
“Considering that the old list – which we’re calling in the vernacular – has no veterans on it, that we’re bypassing veterans and that the chief’s recommendation was not for five people off the old list, I will be voting no,” Grillo said.
“I will be voting no with the suggestion that we get further legal counsel as far as the ethics involved here,” Lembo said. “To me, there’s certainly an appearance of impropriety.”
The councilmen’s votes were overridden by Buchanan, Kilpatrick, Melendez and Novak.
In voting yes, Novak stated that the council had taken similar action before and legal evidence supported her decision to cast a vote.
“We recently took an ethics class before [our] last meeting and we went through case law,” Novak said. “And I still requested an opinion of our attorney [if] it was ethical for me to vote on this and I was told yes. The ethics on this [and] the case law is staggering to say that as long as there’s no financial benefit for me [and] the person is not my dependent, I can vote on it.”
After the vote was taken, O’Brien asked if a motion could be made to have a new certified employment list.
The motion was not made because, according to Clarke, having a new list would invalidate the vacancies that were declared using the current list.
The council’s action was met with objection from Drawl, who believed a compromise could have been reached by declaring three vacancies.
“I’m honestly very disappointed,” Drawl said. “I think the option of hiring three would have probably satisfied us on behalf of the veterans. I think that was a reasonable compromise. One of the problems we have is no compromise; we could have solved this problem very easily tonight. I wish you had taken the three and satisfied everybody.
“Most people don’t have to take an ethics class to figure out there are a few gray areas,” Drawl said. “I would have stepped down if it was a close relative of mine. It may be legal, but it’s not right.”
Anthony D’Onofrio, a Sayreville police officer and resident, also objected to the action taken.
“There’s a list for a reason,” D’Onofrio said. “We want the top candidates. Now we’re lower on the list [and] I would rather have [high-scoring applicants and veterans] fill the spots. It’s a phone call away, a certify of the [new] list.”
Contact Matthew Sockol at firstname.lastname@example.org.