By Ron Leir
A disgruntled Nutley Police superior officer has fired the opening round in a battle with Mayor Alphonse Petracco, the township Public Safety director, accusing the mayor of political interference in the Police Department.
Capt. Thomas Strumolo, 39, an 18-year veteran whose dad, Tom Sr., served with the department, has retained the Chatham law firm of Gina Mendola Longarzo LLC to file a notice of tort claim against the township, the Police Deptartment and the mayor, seeking $2.5 million in damages.
The claim was filed with the township April 11, and if nothing changes by Oct. 11, then Strumolo can fire his next round with a formal lawsuit that would expose the mayor and the township to further embarrassment and, potentially, big liabilities.
The 12-page claim alleges that Petracco “has steadfastly refused to promote Captain Strumolo to Deputy Chief despite the fact that he is the highest ranked and only eligible [candidate] on the current Deputy Chief promotional list … which expires on Feb. 17, 2014.”
This is so, the claim asserts, despite Police Chief John Holland’s endorsement of Strumolo’s promotion. Holland is expected to vacate his job in November when he reaches the mandatory retirement age of 65 and, according to the claim, the mayor fears that Strumolo would be the heir apparent to the chief’s position. Strumolo alleges in the claim that his rivalry with Petracco stems from October 2009 when he refused to participate in “union-busting conduct” which, he says, the mayor “proposed against an [unnamed] officer in the Department.”
After referring several complaints he received, as Internal Affairs boss, against Petracco to the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, Strumolo alleged Petracco “retaliated” by refusing to promote him to deputy chief and, further, that Petracco tried – several times – to change the department’s Table of Organization by eliminating the deputy chief position and adding two captain positions, thereby setting the stage for promoting the mayor’s “favored [unnamed] officers.”
Strumolo’s claim alleged that Petracco initially tried to alter the T.O. by introducing an ordinance Oct. 16, 2012, but pulled it after a premeeting caucus, then did introduce the legislation Nov. 30, 2012, only to see it narrowly rejected.
On Jan. 15, 2013, Strumolo said, Petracco sought to re-introduce the ordinance to change the T.O., this time proposing to eliminate the deputy chief rank and add one captain, claiming that the township would save money in the process – which Strumolo’s claim denies – and proposed the hiring of a consultant at a $17,500 cap for a study of the Police Department in what Strumolo’s claim characterized as an attempt to create an “after the fact” justification for the proposed T.O. change.
After a lengthy caucus, however, Petracco withdrew both proposals but, the following day, the Strumolo claim says, Petracco “retaliated” by “instructing Chief Holland to assign [Strumolo] to the night shift and to order [Strumolo] to wear his uniform, as opposed to plainclothes, while on duty.”
At the township meeting of Feb. 5, 2013, Petracco re-introduced the proposed hiring of the consultant, SDM, which was approved by a 2-1 vote. However, the Strumolo claim notes, “SDM has never visited the [Police] Department or consulted with Chief Holland or any other member of the Department …. Nor has SDM’s study ever been released.”
Despite the mayor’s claim that he’s trying to save the township money, he has hired five new dispatchers at a salary of $45,000 each and a second administrative assistant for $47,000, “despite the fact that no other [Township] Commissioner has two administrative assistant and [that] he had to change the salary ordinance to add this position,” Strumolo’s claim states.
By declaring Strumolo “too young” for promotional consideration, Petracco committed “reverse age discrimination,” the claim alleges. Petracco’s conduct also violates the federal whistleblower act and the state Civil Rights Act, the claim alleges.
At the June 4 Township Commission meeting, Nutley PBA Local 33 President Gerard Tusa echoed the Strumolo contention that “politics, not public safety, are at the heart of the Department’s direction of late,” and cited the mayor’s extending of all police promotional lists as an indication “that Mayor Petracco wanted the list extended to promote his friends over those deserving candidates who are better suited for the position.”
According to Tusa, the mayor’s motivation is to “remove control of the Department from our Chief.” Such interference, Tusa said, will “not only jeopardize the safety of the police officers but the safety of the general public as well.”
Tusa told the commissioners that his members “deserve a safe, ethical, and honest place to work, free of political pressure and backlash. If the police department falls so does the Township….”
Several messages left for Petracco weren’t returned by press time.