LINDEN — Although Sal Bivona formally received the police chief title last week, he will not have it for long.
The promotion came just three months before he retires, ending a 34-year career with the police department. But come April 1, a new police chief, James Schulhafer, 59, will take over the top cop position.
Interestingly, even though Bivona received the title he wanted and fought for, he is not around to enjoy it. As of Jan. 1. he began using accrued vacation and sick days, which will bring him up to his April 1 retirement date. Until then, Schulhafer, who also has served on the force for 34 years, is acting chief. The move ended many months of controversy over who was the best man for the police chief position, dividing the council and mayor on the issue.
Last August the mayor went to bat for Schulhafer, but lost the battle. Even though the decision of who is appointed police chief is a mayoral decision, the council still had to give their blessing on the choice and they made it clear Bivona was their man.
Mayor Rich Gerbounka, however, felt Schulhafer was the best man for the job because he scored highest on the civil service exam, while Bivona came in second. The entire matter came to a head in August when the mayor and council stood in opposite corners on the matter.
The mayor admitted Bivona had been a good interim police chief, and was well liked by the community, but he felt the department and city would fare better with Schulhafer at the helm. Schulhafer not only earned a master degree from Seton Hall, Gerbounka said, but also graduated from the prestigious FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. And he received the blessing of two former police chiefs, who both felt he was the best person for the job.
Former chiefs Michael Boyle, who spent 34 years on the force along with John Miliano, a 23-year veteran member, gave Schulhafer glowing recommendations in writing.
Gerbounka felt the same and backed that up with his belief that where you stand in civil service testing is important.
“My policy is to promote from the top of the civil service list,” the mayor said at the time.
Gerbounka, a former member of the city police force for many years, said last spring that although he had the greatest respect for Bivona, unless there was something on Schulhafer’s record that made him unfit to serve as police chief, he should be the city’s next police chief.
But while the testing component was important to Gerbounka, Bivona had something more important — the “popular” vote. And it steadily grew stronger.
In February 2011 when Boyle stepped down as police chief because he had a very good offer from United States Homeland Security, the mayor appointed Schulhafer as acting chief. At that time Bivona had already put in his papers to retire, but pulled them back when he heard Boyle was leaving. In the end, the mayor compromised and made Bivona acting chief, providing he would retire at the end of 2011. But the end of the year came and went, Gerbounka said, and Bivona failed to put in his retirement papers.
“When a man gives his word you believe him,” the mayor said, adding that he was disappointed that Bivona broke his.
Nevertheless, the council was adamant about Bivona being the right person for the job, pointing out that he was beloved by the community and known as a “cop’s cop.”
Eventually the council unanimously approved a resolution that allowed Bivona to continue serving as chief while receiving $155,340 salary until he retired.
Then a copy of a letter from the state was discovered alerting the city that no one could hold a provisional position for more than a year. Gerbounka agreed to make Bivona chief, but only until he retired.