by Jim Walsh
TRENTON – Opponents of the Camden County Police Department won a state Supreme Court ruling Tuesday — but the decision came several years too late.
In a 6-0 decision, the High Court said Camden residents should have been allowed to vote in a 2012 referendum on whether to keep the city’s police department or replace it with a county-run force. City officials sued to block the vote and won a Superior Court ruling that kept the question off the ballot.
The High Court rejected arguments by city officials that the referendum would have improperly restricted the actions of future municipal governments, and that the referendum should be prohibited under several New Jersey laws, including a statute that put Camden under state supervision.
But Tuesday’s decision, noting the county force replaced the city department in May 2013, also said the original ballot question had become “out of date, inaccurate and misleading.” Voters who signed the 2012 petition might have changed their minds in the intervening years, it added.
“The challenge to the police reorganization must start anew with an ordinance that reflects the facts as they now stand,” the High Court said.
Justice Fausto Fernandez-Vina, who voted in the city’s favor as the Superior Court trial judge, did not take part in the decision.
Anthony Valenti, a Moorestown lawyer for the citizens’ group, called the ruling a victory for New Jersey residents who pursue similar voter initiatives in the future.
“At least those obstacles (raised by city officials) are gone,” said the attorney. “We needed this pathway cleared.”
“I think this case had much larger ramifications, not just in Camden, but across the state,” Valenti said.
City spokesman Robert Corrales said he was “pleased” with the ruling.
“The decision affirms the city’s position that the ordinance that was proposed is ‘out of date, inaccurate and misleading,’ ” he said.
“While there is still more work to be done, the (Camden County Police Department) was a first step in the right direction to revitalize Camden to make it a safe and vibrant city for residents, businesses and visitors,” Corrales said.
Supporters contend the county police force is an effective, state-funded alternative to the 141-year-old city department, which had been hit hard by cost-cutting layoffs. Opponents assert the county agency was created without input from Camden residents and was intended to break the union representing city officers.
The court fight began after the city clerk’s office in April 2012 approved a petition, signed by some 2,700 Camden voters, to hold a referendum on the future of the municipal police department. Mayor Dana Redd and Council President Frank Moran sued to block the vote.
In rejecting the trial court’s ruling, the High Court said the proposed ordinance would not constitute “an unlawful restraint on the future exercise of the City of Camden’s legislative power.”
It also said the takeover act and other state laws do not “preempt the power of initiative conferred by the Legislature in the Faulkner Act.”
The ruling also noted a proposed ordinance to save the county police would have been subject to a veto by New Jersey’s Commissioner of Community Affairs under terms of the state takeover. Reasons for the veto would have been noted on the ordinance, and residents would have been able to override the veto at the ballot box, Valenti said.
Jim Walsh; (856) 486-2646; firstname.lastname@example.org