LINDEN — Police Capt. James Schulhafer will be assuming the police chief position, provisional or otherwise, at some point. The question of when exactly that will happen still remains up in the air.
Last week Mayor Rich Gerbounka received approval from the New Jersey Civil Service Division to appoint Schulhafer as provisional chief, bumping Salvatore Bivona, a 39-year department veteran from the spot he held in a provisional capacity since July 2011.
Gerbounka said he was forced into this position after the last council caucus meeting when he submitted Schulhafer’s name for police chief and the issue was tabled by Council President Jim Moore.
Only one member of the council was ready to vote on the measure, while the remainder refused to address the issue.
This was especially disturbing, Gerbounka said, because of his close relationship with Moore and the fact he supported the council president when the majority of council was intent on discrediting this elected official two years ago.
According to the mayor, civil service rules only allow a provisional police chief to serve for a period of one year. Since Bivona was appointed in July 2011, the city either had to name someone else as provisional police chief or appoint a permanent police chief.
Since council made it clear they were unwilling to do that, the mayor said that left him with little choice but to take up the issue with civil service.
Gerbounka spoke with civil service late last week and was given approval to replace Bivona with Schulhafer as “temporary” provisional chief for a period of six months. But the mayor is hopeful the problem of who will fill the spot permanently will be solved prior to that occurring.
The mayor, who has the statutory right to appoint the police chief, was more than frustrated by the fact council would not vote on appointing Schulhafer, a 34-year veteran of the police department, as chief. Equally disappointing, he said, was that Moore tabled the matter at the caucus meeting.
“The council president didn’t even give me the courtesy of having a vote on Capt. Schulhafer for police chief,” said the mayor in an interview with LocalSource.
But, even close allies, including 7th Ward Councilman Jack Sheehy, 9th Ward Councilman Bob Frazier, 4th Ward Councilman Derek Armstead and 1st Ward Councilman Chris Kolibas, wanted to table the issue rather than chance Bivona would not get the job.
“The question is, how many times can they table it before it denies me my statutory rights,” the mayor said, adding that this possibility led him to look into other options that would pave the way for Schulhafer to step into the top public safety position.
Gerbounka, a former veteran Linden police officer, explained that since he became mayor his policy has been not to pass over any police officer who places first on the civil service test unless there is a valid reason. In this particular case, the mayor explained, Schulhafer not only placed first, but also is a graduate of Seton Hall and has a masters degree.
“He came out number one and he has an impeccable record,” Gerbounka noted, adding he felt the governing body did “a severe injustice” to Schulhafer and attributed it directly to politics.
“I will not stand for it,” the mayor said, pointing out he is the mayor of Linden and he promotes, demotes and appoints.
“I want this governing body to know that you don’t interfere in the Linden Police Department as long as I am the mayor,” he added.
Bivona placed second on the civil service test and has a stellar record with the police department. He also came up with a “Strategic Plan” for the police department in May 2011 that was lauded by council members and residents for its goal to improve minority recruitment in the department and improve community policing.
Memos sent by Gerbounka to Bivona in 2011 back up the mayor’s policy of not passing over a qualified candidate for promotion. For example, on June 14, 2011, in an email to Bivona, the mayor asked the provisional police chief to “redistribute my policy regarding promotions.”
“I want to make it perfectly clear to all personnel under your command that I do not intend to pass anyone using the ‘rule of three’ unless the department can point to specific and articulate facts that justify me doing so,” the mayor indicated.
“I intend to have an objective promotional process free from political interference for the officers in your department,” Gerbounka added.
But, despite the mayor’s strong opinion that Schulhafer should have the top cop position, Bivona still appears to have the support not only of council and fellow police officers, but the community, who has come out in force to support this well known and beloved police officer.
Resident Mildred Curry, who submitted a letter on behalf of the Chandler Avenue Coalition in support of Bivona, believes he is the best man for the job. In fact, these residents outlined the reasoning behind this stance.
“Chief Sal Bivona is a 39-year veteran policeman and long time supporter of our community in all ways, knows the history, the layout and respects the mutual interdependence that must exist between the police and community so safety and crime prevention prevail in our neighborhoods,” they wrote.
Others, such as Linden resident Pat Murgo handed out a statement of her support for Bivona and his vision for the city of Linden.
“We need a chief who is available and approachable by the residents of all ages. Let’s not forget that at one time people were afraid to approach an officer but Chief Bivona has changed that stigma,” she said.
Bivona’s outgoing nature and gregarious personality has not been lost on those who watched this officer climb through the ranks over the years.
Known as a “cop’s cop,” Bivona earned the reputation of showing up at every event that goes on in Linden, from ball games to annual reunions, with a smile on his face and something nice to say. This endeared him to residents, young and old alike, along with council members.
Council members such as 2nd Ward Councilman Rich Koziol and 3rd Ward Councilman Peter Brown strongly believe Bivona is the best man for police chief.
“There is a lot more — so much more — that goes into being the chief of police than test scores,” said Koziol, adding that Bivona is “well rounded, street savvy and his reputation in the community speaks for itself.”
The councilman is especially concerned about a letter Gerbounka sent to all council members Aug. 9, notifying them that “no police department head, officer or civilian” will be allowed to respond to requests for police service from council members unless it is an emergency or routine police report.
All such requests, Koziol said, must be funneled through the proper chain of command, which is the mayor’s office, for appropriate action.
Koziol admitted he was very concerned about this new order, considering his ward is a heavily populated area and residents often have many concerns about traffic. But, Koziol confessed he has little room to fight Gerbounka on this because “the mayor is the unofficial head over the police department.”
Still, the 2nd ward councilman is concerned about the repercussions this new rule will have on residents he oversees.
“If I call Sal and the mayor hears about it, Bivona can be written up,” he explained, adding that it was no secret Bivona and Gerbounka do not get along.
“I’m frustrated right now,” Koziol said, but admitted he had little recourse and neither does any other councilperson.
The 2nd ward council member said he lives in a “tough ward” where there are many instances when he requires a traffic study, but now his hands are tied.
“What do I tell the people in my ward, that I can’t take care of what I was elected to do?” the councilman added.