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DV Pilot police & fire

Saddle Brook mayor versus police chief: The view from here

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot File Photo
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

A PUBLISHER WRITES: Sometimes balance in reporting isn’t exactly fairness – which is why I’m expressing my opinion here instead of writing a news story about Saddle Brook Mayor Karen Chamberlain’s latest attempts to get Police Chief Robert Kugler to run any and all information, comments or correspondence to the media through her or the township business administrator first.

This nonsense has to stop.

Just about every elected and appointed public servant you’d talk to (those with sense, anyway) would tell you that police administrators in America don’t clear their every word with ministers of information. They have enough to do without having to battle senseless rules (I’m reminded of Eddie Murphy’s routine about his father posting a list on the refrigerator of things his mother couldn’t do, including answering the phone and leaving the house).

This is also wasting the time of the NJ State Association of Chiefs of Police, which has threatened to sue Chamberlain “for interfering with the day-to-day operations of the agency” in violation of the Chiefs Responsibility Act (NJSA 40A:14-118.

Jerry DeMarco (Publisher/Editor)

It also thumbs its nose at New Jersey Executive Order 69, which requires public agencies to provide timely information to citizens – which, don’t forget, is what members of the media are.

This isn’t the first time this has happened — or the second, for that matter. These two have a history.

In a previous stint as mayor 12 years ago, Chamberlain directly promoted officers without telling Kugler. Then-Councilman Louis D’Arminio — a former Hackensack detective sergeant who went on to become mayor himself — later insisted Chamberlain remove herself from all police business. She refused.

In 2003, D’Arminio terminated Chamberlain’s daughter from the Saddle Brook Police Department after determining that she was unfit for duty. A state administrative law judge later determined that the officer, Kimberly Perrelli, should be considered retired instead of fired, restoring her pension eligibility. Perrelli dropped sexual harassment charges she’d lodged against Kugler and others.

To this day, Chamberlain continues to have it in for the chief, says Ray Hayducka, a past president and now spokesperson for the state chiefs association.

Two years ago, the association came to Kugler’s defense after the mayor first ordered him to “cease and desist” from dealing with the media – including production of an interactive “Chief’s Chat” online program – unless she approved his remarks in advance.

When the “Chief’s Chat” storm broke two years ago, Bergen County Prosecutor John L. Molinelli told CLIFFVIEW PILOT in writing that “to require prior approval before a Chief releases information that might be required of him under Executive Order 69 might not be appropriate as it might serve to defeat the intent of Executive Order 69 and probably runs afoul of our Court’s proscriptions in the SHORE V PARAMUS TOWNSHIP case.”

In that case, the courts found that Paramus violated the order by having the township clerk run all public-records requests through the municipal attorney first.

It gets worse:

Last year, Hayducka said, the mayor balked because she wasn’t told that CBS National News was reporting from Saddle Brook Police headquarters as part of its coverage of the DEA’s National Drug Take Back Program, an extremely positive initiative that got a lot of unused medications out of cabinets and drawers where innocent children could have found them.

During the program’s launch four years ago, both the director of the state DEA office and New Jersey’s attorney general held a statewide news conference in Saddle Brook. To make an issue of last year’s television coverage – a win for the township, by any measure – was foolish.

Last month, Kugler wrote a letter to CLIFFVIEW PILOT that produced this piece: Saddle Brook police chief says mayor, council lied, removed him from promotions, appointments

Now comes Chamberlain’s new directive.

“The Mayor’s recent actions are retaliation and must cease,” Hayducka told me last week. “She is obviously looking for her pound of flesh….”

This extended to her objection to hiring Kugler’s daughter, Shayna, as a township police officer even though she finished in the top three on the civil service exam, said Hayducka, who is South Brunswick’s police chief. Chamberlain should recuse herself from the next round of police hiring, he said, because “she has proven she cannot be objective.”

He has a point.

At the very least, Chamberlain has to realize that she’s a civilian elected to a position that isn’t in any way vested with the kind of unchecked authority that she’s apparently trying to wield.

She’s also not messing with just any administrator.

The man has been chief for 19 years. He’s a former president of the New Jersey State Chiefs of  Police Association and the Bergen County Police Chiefs Association, belongs to the FBI National Academy  Associates, and has served on the national and New Jersey DARE Executive Boards.

As Hayducka noted, Kugler “is one of the most respected police chiefs in the entire state.”

“He trained me and many other chiefs to foster relationships with the media, work with the media to make our communities safer and to give the media what it is legally required to have,” the veteran chief said.

I, for one, consider Kugler bright, informative and extremely dedicated to making not only his town but the world a better place.

Kugler recused himself from the hiring process after his daughter decided to face potential opposition and apply to work in the place where she grew up, the town that she and her family love. Shayna Kugler wrote a very moving piece for CLIFFVIEW PILOT about the experience: Saddle Brook police chief’s daughter thanks officials for chance to become officer

It spoke volumes not only about her but about the man who helped raise her.

So did the way the chief welcomed the woman who got the job, Rebecca Sanchez: Female Saddle Brook police officer appointed

For this trouble, Kugler received the order from Mayor Chamberlain that he “refrain from issuing communications to the media in any form unless and until it is first reviewed and approved by myself and the Township Administrator” and to “notify the Mayor and the Business Administrator when any news media contacts the Saddle Brook Police Department prior to any response by you or your designee.”

Really?

Chamberlain offers no concrete argument for muzzling her town’s police chief, in a nation where such things simply aren’t done.

“This restriction is unreasonable, to say the least, and may very well lead to unnecessary conflict for all concerned,” the chief said, adding that it’s “not in the best interests of the township administration and community.”

Kugler, as the professional, should determine what public safety information be released, so as not to compromise any investigations and to guarantee timely access for the public – of which the media is most definitely a part – on matters of immediate importance. Nothing has ever stopped him from consulting municipal attorneys whenever he was concerned about the sensitivity of releasing certain information. There’s no reason to believe that would change.

Kugler, as the professional, shouldn’t have his right to discuss crime, law or public safety infringed upon in any way.

In the end, Kugler, as the professional, should not have to waste time with nonsense.

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