By Roger Martindell
Recent debate concerning Princeton Mayor and Council’s disagreement regarding who is the state statutory “appropriate authority” governing municipal police –- the governing body or the municipal administrator? -– has painted the issue as an “
either/or” matter. It’s not. There’s better, middle ground.
Yes, the elected governing body, or its Public Safety Committee, should be the “appropriate authority” to which local police are held accountable. The police are the largest, most expensive, and most politically powerful municipal department with the most frequent contact with the public. Clearly, the public’s elected residents should have substantial, direct input into governance of the department and not be limited to dealing with the department through the municipal administrator.
But there is one critical exception which the current debate, as expressed in comments attributed to members of Council, seems to overlook. Elected office holders should have no role in sitting as an appeal panel regarding any personnel dispute within the department. Recent history in the former Borough’s police department made that point very clear and motivated the Borough to adopt an ordinance, still in effect, which grants to the governing body’s Public Safety Committee the role of “appropriate authority” but assigns the duties in hearing appeals of police personnel disputes to the municipal Administrator.
That model, adopted in 2009 with the approval of the municipal attorney, deserves support. Here’s why:
1. Potential appeals of personnel matters — especially if they involve criminal investigation and/or potential litigation, which are the ones that really matter — can take months and even years.
2. Legal counsel will advise that, if elected officials serve as the appellate body on any personnel matter, then during the pendency of any potential appeal of a personnel matter the governing body cannot investigate or otherwise be involved. That is so because of the well-accepted legal principle that an appellate body cannot also investigate the very matter that it may consider on appeal. This rule effectively blocks governing body members from taking any investigatory or policy-setting role in pending, important personnel matters, frequently for many months or years. The delay can –- and did, for the former Borough just a few years ago –- cost millions of dollars in salary disputes and legal fees.
3. Thus, if the governing body were to make the unfortunate choice of according to itself the role of an appellate body for personnel matters, that decision could stymie the governing body in conducting the traditional legislative functions of investigation, setting policy, and budgeting concerning personnel matters of consequence. That’s bad for the community.
4. Additionally, elected representatives are not well-suited to serve in the quasi-judicial function of an appellate body, generally having little experience in doing so. If elected officials were to take quasi-judicial responsibility in hearing appeals of personnel dispute, they probably would struggle to do that job well. Most likely, they would be seen as merely rubber stamping the personnel manager’s decision.
In short, the best outcome in the current debate concerning the proper role in governing municipal police is for the Mayor and Council to adopt a sensible approach of granting to itself statutory “appropriate authority” status generally but carving out the duties of hearing appeals of personnel matters and assigning those duties to the municipal administrator.
Perhaps that’s a compromise both sides of the present dispute can support.
Mr. Martindell is a lawyer and served as a Princeton Borough councilman for more than two decades.