Donovan Sues Freeholders to Stop County Police Merger
County executive says freeholder vote jeopardized public safety.
Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan filed a lawsuit Thursday against the county freeholders to block a second reading of an ordinance that would dissolve the county police, and prevent a ballot question on merging the department with the sheriff's office.
The legal action comes after the freeholders voted 4-2 to put a non-binding referendum on the November ballot asking if the county police should be merged with the sheriff's office. Freeholders also passed an ordinance on first reading to immediately disband the police department and merge its functions with the sheriff's office.
The Donovan administration had vowed to challenge the votes in court.
In a statement, the county executive said the freeholders have no authority to dissolve a county department. The referendum vote was improper because it came by resolution, not an ordinance, and at a special meeting rather than a regular public meeting, the suit claims.
"The County Executive is responsible for all departments and their organization and, as such, and pursuant to applicable law, the Freeholder Board lacks the power to unilaterally dissolve the County Police,” the suit says.
In a statement, Donovan said the suit was motivated by public safety.
"It is too important a matter to the taxpayers and the safety of all the residents of Bergen County," Donovan said. "The Freeholders have a different, important role to play, but the actions taken last week were wrong and jeopardize the safety and security of the citizens of Bergen County.”
Freeholder Board Attorney Richard Malagiere was not immediately available for comment. A board spokesman could not be reached for comment.
Freeholder David Ganz, a Fair Lawn Democrat, said the New Jersey Supreme Court has previously ruled that referendums can be placed on the ballot through a resolution and not necessarily an ordinance, citing a case between the AFL-CIO and Bergen County, as well as a Mercer County case.
"I don't think hers is meritorious," Ganz said of Donovan's suit. "It sounds like an act of desperation. Why the county executive wouldn't want to hear what the people have to say is beyond me."
Ganz said the Donovan lawsuit isn't really the issue for the process to move forward, as he would oppose a second reading of the ordinance to dissolve the county police until after a referendum takes place.
"I thought I made very clear at the last meeting of the freeholders on Friday that I would not vote for a second reading [of the ordinance to dissolve the county police] unless a referendum takes place and the listening tour has concluded."
"I voted to introduce [the ordinance] not because I approve it or disapprove it but because I want upfront for everybody to understand what the importance would be if a referendum was completed. The freeholders concluded it was wise to proceed."
Ganz and Freeholder Joan Voss, a Fort Lee Democrat, plan to hold public forums on the merger issue.
"I'm primarily interested in the referendum for November...I want to hear more information," Voss said.
A copy of the lawsuit is attached to this article.
Updated 5:29 p.m. Check back for updates on the developing story.