TRENTON, NJ (CN) - The reorganization of Camden's police force was done illegally since a voter petition to halt the creation of a county police force in place of a city police department should have been put to a vote, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
The ruling is too little, too late for a group of Camden voters who wanted to maintain the city's police department in lieu of the county's plan to absorb and reorganize it into a county police force.
In 2011, the city of Camden and the state's Department of Community Affairs agreed to the formation of a Camden County Police Department to help reduce the financial burden on the municipality. The proposal disbanded the city's police force in 2013 and formed the Camden Metro Division of the County Police Department.
A group of voters opposed the new county police force and submitted a petition under the Faulkner Act, which regulates New Jersey municipalities, to require Camden to have its own municipal police rather than a county force. The voters intended the petition to be placed on the ballot for voter approval in the state's 2012 general election.
Camden Mayor Dana Redd and Camden Council President Francisco Moran opposed that idea and filed a complaint against the voters alleging the proposed petition would unlawfully restrained the city's legislative power. They said the state's fiscal statutes and the Municipal Rehabilitation and Economic Recovery Act (MRERA) preempted such a petition.
A lower court ruled against a public vote and said the petition would have violated current New Jersey statutes.
But the state's appellate court-and now the state Supreme Court-disagreed, ruling that the Faulkner Act specifically states that a passed ordinance could be repealed only by voter action.
"The [Faulkner] Act permits the voters of any municipality to 'propose any ordinance and ... adopt or reject the same at the polls,'" the high court said.
The issue stems from Camden's long history of fiscal troubles. In 2002 the state enacted the MRERA and assumed comprehensive oversight of Camden's budget and fiscal affairs, managing it for nearly a decade. During that time, the city's police department - which at one point accounted for nearly one-third of the city's total budget - faced particular scrutiny by the state.
Redd had invoked MRERA as the reason to shut down the voters' petition, but the Supreme Court said that statute did not preempt the petition since it relied on the older Faulkner Act. In fact, the high court's opinion cited the MRERA's specified need for a police force to protect public safety and its language mandating that the state would assist municipalities in maintaining the required number of police officers.
But while the Supreme Court's ruling favored the petitioners, the petition in question is out of date-the county police force already exists, and the municipality's police department is no more-and therefore it must be stricken.
The high court lamented the appellate division's decision not to accelerate the original legal challenge so that it could be heard in time to be relevant, but said the voters must now submit a new petition that is not merely reworded.
"By virtue of the disbanding of Camden's municipal police force, the creation of the County Police Department, and two years of police services provided to the citizens of Camden by the County Department's Metro Division, the ordinance in this appeal is out of date, inaccurate, and misleading," the opinion states.
The committee of voters had urged its petition to remain, regardless of whether it is out of date, stating it was worded in broad enough terms to not be confusing and still have some effect on Camden's current police organization.
Justice Faustino Fernandez-Vina did not participate in the 6-0 opinion.Follow @NickRummell
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