A lawyer for the Princeton Borough Police Union, PBA Local 130, has threatened to go to court if officials try to bump the new Princeton Township acting chief to the top of the ranks of the consolidated Princeton police force.
“The PBA has requested that we write to you to express its concern over the Township’s erroneous belief that its recent appointment of a lieutenant to the position of `acting chief of police’ places that individual equal to the rank of the Borough’s police chief and superior in rank to the borough’s captain and lieutenants,” reads the letter from lawyer James Mets of Iselin, obtained by Planet Princeton.
“Please be advised that the appointment of a lieutenant to the position of `acting chief of police’ does not make him a permanently appointed chief of police. He remains a lieutenant unless permanently appointed to the title of chief,” Mets wrote. “It is our opinion that the only eligible candidate for the position of chief of police for the consolidated Princeton is the Borough’s current Chief, David Dudeck. Moreover, the Township’s `acting chief of police’ does not outrank the Borough’s captain and lieutenants.”
Mets argues that any attempt to demote Dudeck, Borough Captain Nick Sutter, or Borough Lieutenants Sharon Papp and Robert Currier to accommodate promoting the Township’s acting chief would violate state statutes.
Earlier this month, the Princeton Township Committee voted unanimously to promote Christopher Morgan to acting police chief. Morgan previously was a lieutenant serving as the officer in charge of the department in the wake of Chief Robert Buchanan’s departure. Effective March 31, Buchanan was placed on a paid leave of absence until the end of the year and will officially retire Dec. 31 as part of an agreement with the Township.
Borough officials protested Morgan’s promotion given that consolidation is only seven months away. Some Township officials called the objections political grandstanding. Township officials argued that putting someone in the position of acting chief was necessary for the safety and welfare of residents and that it would be important for the Township to have an employee in the top leadership of the consolidated police force.
But Mets said state statutes prohibit an employer from demoting an officer who has been appointed to a permanent title without just cause. Charges must be detailed in a written complaint. While the Borough and Township are not governed by the rules of the state’s Civil Service Commission, Mets said the courts have held that an employee serving in an acting capacity does not have a right to that title by occupying the title over a period of time. Morgan has permanent status as a police lieutenant and has tenure in that title, Mets said.
Met also argues that the consolidation commission’s recommendations on a “rank neutral approach” to merging the two departments support his argument that Dudeck is the only sworn officer eligible to become the police chief of the consolidated Princeton.
“When the residents of the Borough and the Township approved consolidation, each department had an active, permanent chief of police. In April of 2012, Township Chief of Police Robert Buchanan abruptly retired, leaving only Borough Chief of Police, David Dudeck as the only permanent Chief of Police affected by the consolidation,” Mets wrote. “By designating a lieutenant as `acting chief of police’ instead of promoting him to the permanent title, the Township has recognized its obligation to comply with the implementation of the rank neutral design. Based on the report, the Township does not have the authority to change its rank structure while the consolidation is being implemented. Thus, it cannot seek to have a junior lieutenant leapfrog over an existing captain and two senior lieutenants.”
In the letter, Mets asks Mark Freda, chair of the transition task force, to prevail on the transition task force (an advisory body) and officials to “cease and desist” from trying to insert an acting chief of police into the running for chief of the consolidated Princeton Police Department. Any attempts to demote Dudeck, Sutter, Papp or Currier in favor of promoting a junior lieutenant will be vigorously challenged in court, Mets said.
William Kearns, legal counsel to the transition task force, also gave an opinion last week that Morgan would return to his lieutenant status after consolidation takes place.
The consolidation transition task force did not discuss the issue at the four-hour task force meeting Wednesday night.