Camden County freeholders' plan to implement a countywide police force has dominated political discussion throughout the area for nearly two years now.
The discussion has become particularly heated in recent weeks as a county-run police force to patrol Camden City, dubbed the Metro Division, seemingly inches to fruition.
In Gloucester Township, the story has been no different despite elected leaders' repeated statements over the past 12 months or so in support of maintaining a local police force.
The topic was one of the main issues of contention leading up to the 2011 Council election, as Republican challengers questioned Democratic incumbents' commitment to local policing.
Gloucester Township Republican Municipal Committee Chairman Ray Polidoro challenged Council President Glen Bianchini to "put it on paper" in October 2011 after the governing body's leader had backed Gloucester Township Police Department during an earlier Council meeting.
The issue quieted on the local front for a few months, before recently picking up steam again here as the debate has intensified to inferno levels in Camden.
The head of the Camden Fraternal Order of Police recently called the city's dissolution of the police department as "a form of union-busting."
On Thursday, county officials and Camden Mayor Dana Redd told the Philadelphia Inquirer it will cost $5 million to $6.5 million to start up the proposed police force—money they say will come from the state—but ultimately save $14 million per year over current Camden police costs, according to a report published Friday on Philly.com.
A look at some recent statements by Gloucester Township's elected officials:
- "I'm in support of keeping our Gloucester Township Police Department," Council Vice President Orlando Mercado said last Monday. "I have friends and people who work in Camden City—I worked there for seven years—and maybe it's a way to take a look at something different there."
- At Council's Aug. 13 meeting, a Gloucester City resident and a township resident questioned Councilwoman Michelle Gentek—a Democratic Party candidate for Camden County freeholder—about the countywide force and whether she thought it was a good fit for Gloucester Township.
Gentek did not respond during the meeting, but did discuss the topic with Patch the next day. The councilwoman told Patch she feels the Metro Division is a good idea for Camden City. While she did not respond to a direct question about her personal feeling on county police patrolling Gloucester Township streets, she did reiterate Bianchini's oft-expressed response to the question.
"Gloucester Township will not opt in to the program," she said. "We will not opt in."
- At Council's meeting last Monday, Mayor David Mayer responded to a resident's concern about the township being forced to join the county force at some point.
"The county program is an optional program that municipalities would have to make an affirmative decision to enter into," he said.
Mayer also addressed the resident's concern the township could lose out on funding if it refuses to join the county force.
"I think what you might be referring to is there is legislation that is pending—it has not been approved—that looks at state-aid figures and sets up some type of council that would look at different shared-services arrangements," he said. "If they determine that you would be able to save money through trash collection ... then there could be aid withheld if you did not enter that shared services."
- In late July, Bianchini offered his strongest statement to date in support of maintaining the local police force. "I don't believe in the countywide police, and you won't see them here in Gloucester Township," he told a township resident.
Now, we'll look at some recent statements by opponents of the countywide plan, specifically as it applies to Gloucester Township:
- Former councilwoman Maureen McLaughlin suggested to Council last week that even if aid to the township is threatened at any point, voters should decide whether to join the countywide police force.
"My concern is down the road, if they start dangling this over our head, I want to find out from this Council, will they commit to putting it on the ballot prior to making a decision to join?" she asked.
Solicitor David Carlamere told McLaughlin a resident would have to initiate such a ballot question, not Council.
"I think our police force does a great job here. Not to say some of the other areas in the county need help, because I think they do," McLaughlin said, pointing to Camden's record rate of homicides through late August.
- John Schmidt, a Gloucester City resident and open-government advocate who frequently attends Gloucester Township Council meetings, on Aug. 27 offered perhaps the strongest argument made in opposition of the countywide force since it was first proposed in 2010—one local officials seem to embrace.
"Local police are very important. Local police know things—because each town is different—that cops from another town would not know," he said. "Gloucester Township is different than the next town over. Haddon Heights is different than Somerdale. Somerdale is different than Gloucester City. Gloucester City is different than Pennsauken, which is different than Camden. And go on for all the municipalities in this county."