The Bergen County Freeholders took the first steps Friday in disbanding the county’s police force and merging it with the sheriff’s office in a move that could be met with litigation from the county administration.
The freeholders voted to put a non-binding referendum on the November ballot asking the public’s opinion on having the sheriff's office absorb the county police department. In another move, the board voted to approve an ordinance dissolving the county police force.
Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan, an opponent of a merger and a referendum, would not enforce the ordinance and would likely challenge the moves in court.
“The county executive has said that she will not enforce this ordinance because this ordinance is illegal," County Administrator Ed Trawinski told the board. “Until the Supreme Court of New Jersey tells the county executive that she has to implement this ordinance I am making it crystal clear she will not."
The board’s vote came at a first reading, meaning freeholders will take another vote on the issue. No date has been set for a public hearing on the ordinance to dissolve the department.
Freeholders David Ganz, Joan Voss, John Mitchell and John Felice voted for the two measures. Freeholders Maura DeNicola and Robert Hermansen opposed the moves.
DeNicola and Hermansen walked out of a meeting last week when the issue was put on the agenda minutes before the meeting started. The pair have been critical of what they have claimed was a backroom political deal to eliminate the county police.
“Public safety should never be used as a political football,” Hermansen said.
The board should consider all options for cost savings and not be stuck at the sole option of dissolving the police department, Hermansen said. The public, he said, should have been given various choices on the issue.
"This is not about the referendum, this is not about walking out of a meeting, this is about the process," he said.
DeNicola said the merger lacked specifics, including a financial analysis.
Ganz and Voss said they would begin a "listening tour" around Bergen County to gauge the public's view on the issue. An effort by Ganz to delay a second reading on the ordinance disbanding the force until after the November election was rejected.
Mark Butler, a Ridgewood police officer and Bergen County PBA representative, said residents benefited from the range of law enforcement agencies serving the county.
“The fact that two conflicting studies exist on the county police and the sheriff’s departments should give the freeholders pause,” Butler said in reading a statement from New Jersey PBA President Anthony Wieners. A study by Guidepost Solutions, commissioned by the prosecutor's office, recommended eliminating the county poilce .
Carolee Adams, of Montvale, said she supported dissolving the county force.
"The county police itself does appear to be superfluous," she said. "With the county budget the way it is, this is one major cost saved."
Opponents of the merger have said disbanding the county police would put the burden of special services, including the K-9 unit and SWAT team, on local police departments. Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli, however, has issued a letter to police chiefs saying it was never suggested that providing these services would fall on local departments.