HILLSIDE, NJ — After months of drastically reduced manpower, shoddy equipment and low morale at both the Hillside police and fire departments, the Hillside town council has decided to take matters into its own hands.
At the Nov. 22 meeting of the town council, council members unanimously passed resolutions directing Hillside Mayor Angela Garretson to hire 15 police officers, as well as more firefighters. A resolution was also passed to purchase a new fire truck.
Conditions have gone from bad to worse at Hillside’s police and fire departments, as morale and manpower at the HPD is down to a record low, and conditions at the fire department have deteriorated to a point where many township officials feel that the safety of Hillside’s residents are in jeopardy.
Council members voiced their concerns at the meeting of the council. Hillside Councilwoman Diane Clements-Murray noted that if new hires at the police department do not occur immediately, there will simply not be enough officers to respond to emergency calls from residents.
The department is currently down to about 55 officers — down more than 20 officers from the desirable 77 or 78.
Murray-Clements put the motion on the table, calling for the hiring of 15 additional officers so that they would be ready for the police academy for the January class. “It has come to my attention that we are in great need of hiring police officers, and if we don’t act efficiently and effectively and immediately, we will not have police officers for the upcoming class that is happening in January,” said Murray-Clements at the meeting.
A resolution asking the mayor to hire these additional officers was enthusiastically and unanimously passed, with council members expressing their hope that Garretson will sign off on the resolutions. “It’s up to the mayor and the public to decide,” said Murray-Clements.
Although the council can pass resolutions asking the mayor to sign off on new hires, Garretson ultimately has the final say.
An employee inside the police department who requested anonymity told LocalSource that although he is feeling optimistic about the prospect of the department getting new hires, the issues with the Civil Service Commission have not yet been rectified by the mayor. “The 15 guys they signed off on yesterday are very imperative,” the source said. “If they don’t hire now, no cops will be hired in 2017. If you don’t get guys in the academy now to graduate in May or June, where are you at? They put the ball in her court,” he said of Garretson.
But according to the source, the mayor still has not completed the required paperwork in order to go through with any new hires. “She still hasn’t submitted the paperwork,” the source said in a phone call. “It should have been done months ago, not now. Chief Panarese is battling time. He’s got a lot of work cut out for him within the next six weeks.”
HPD Captain Nick Lamonte told LocalSource that he is excited about the passed resolutions, and that he hopes that they will go through so that the department can hire much-needed officers. “The chief is very excited that we’re going to hire new officers,” LaMonte told LocalSource in a phone call. “There are a lot of initiatives we’d like to do in the community, and having more manpower will allow us to do that. We’re excited, we’re happy, and we hope that it goes through so that we can better serve the community.”
Hillside council vice president Andrea Hyatt said at the meeting that there are options available to the council if Garretson does not sign off on the new hires. “We have an option to go to the county for assistance if the mayor doesn’t agree to hire,” she said. “We shouldn’t be in a position where we don’t have the support we need, but since we are, there are other options that are available and we need to make sure that the community is aware, that they need to push back against the appointing authority, that they need to make her aware that she needs to hire officers and do something immediately.”
The resolution that was passed to purchase a fire truck for the township’s beleaguered fire department was much-welcomed, although serious concerns remain at the department.
Jeff Albrecht, Hillside fire captain and president of the FMBA Local No. 35, spoke up at the meeting of the council. “There are promotions that need to be made,” said Albrecht, noting an amount of $100,000 being paid in overtime instead of going to additional and much-needed positions. “We have major issues with the firehouses. The walls are falling down; the buildings are not secure. I’m pleading for help from the council.”
Hillside Council President Donald DeAugustine addressed Albrecht’s concerns, stating that if the decisions were up to the council, the issues would have been addressed long ago. “If it were up to this council, we wouldn’t be discussing the need for more manpower,” DeAugustine said. “It would have been done a long time ago. This form of government takes us out of the picture.”
Albrecht said that although he has reached out to Garretson, she has been generally unresponsive. “I’ve attempted to discuss this with the mayor, to get meetings,” Albrecht said. “I’ve given some dates recently and I haven’t received anything back. We’ll take whatever help you can give us.”
DeAugustine had asked that Hillside Fire Department Chief Dominick Naples be present at the meeting to speak to the issues, but Naples had not heeded then request, and DeAugustine made a public note of his absence. DeAugustine also alluded to the fact that Naples seems to be under some kind of gag order put forth by the mayor. “The person that was supposed to be here and speak to us is not allowed to come talk to us,” said DeAugustine. “We can pass resolutions to build the Taj Mahal, but we’re never gonna talk to that person because that person is not allowed to come talk to us.”
Naples did not respond to LocalSource’s request for comment.
DeAugustine also brought up his disgust at what many deem a waste a of taxpayers’ money — Garretson’s mounting legal fees regarding her ongoing litigation with acting Chief of Police Louis Panarese. “$130,000 for legal fees for a ridiculous suit,” said DeAugustine.
DeAugustine showed his frustration with Hillside’s administration, and pointed out the uselessness of resolutions in the face of what many call a useless administration. “We’re gonna be voting on another resolution and another resolution and another resolution, and what’s gonna happen?” asked DeAugustine. “We’re going to be relying on mutual aid to save our township, so we have to consider that. It’s very frustrating.”