By Ron Leir
Nutley cops, armed with a giant inflatable rat and joined by officers from other communities, staged an outdoor rally outside the Municipal Building last Tuesday to protest what they called “political cronyism” by Mayor Alphonse Petracco, who is head of the Public Safety Department.
They followed that, inside, at the Township Commission meeting, with speeches during the public portion of the meeting, urging Petracco to promote Capt. Tom Strumolo to deputy chief. Strumolo, 39, an 18-year cop, is ranked No. 1 on a state Civil Service appointment list for the post. The list will expire Feb. 14, 2014.
With Police Chief John Holland ready to retire in November, Strumolo is viewed by many in the department as, ultimately, the logical successor to Holland.
But in a notice of claim filed against the township and the mayor, Strumolo alleged that Petracco has set several roadblocks to the deputy chief slot ever since Strumolo refused to engage in certain “union-busting” activities which, Strumolo alleged, Petracco wanted him to carry out.
Outside the Municipal Building, the Nutley PBA – with help from the Teamsters union – set up the giant rat (which has come to be a popular icon at labor demonstrations) along the driveway entrance so the mayor had to drive past it when he arrived for the commission meeting.
“This rally is about [recognition of] fairness, merit and hard work,” Nutley PBA President Gerard Tusa said. “We in the Police Department strive to set examples of that and when government wants to make promotions based on politics, it hurts us and the public. You don’t put in decades of work only to be told because you don’t vote for a certain person, you don’t deserve the job.
“You can’t have a good department without a solid leader and if our leader can be compromised, where do we stand?”
Referring to the mayor’s rationale that he was looking for ways to economize in prior proposals to replace the deputy chief rank with an additional captain or to hire a civilian director instead of hiring a new chief, Tusa said: “This isn’t about money. None of this is going to put money back in taxpayers’ pockets.”
Tusa said he hoped the rally “incurs enough interest for the public to put pressure on our elected officials to let the Civil Service procedure work. That’s why we’re a Civil Service town. If you come out No. 1 [on a C.S. test], you should expect to be promoted to that position.”
Among the orderly group of civilians who came out to offer support for the PBA and Strumolo were retiree Joe Castellano and his wife Lillian. “You work all your career the right way and when it comes time to be rewarded, it’s taken away. That’s not right,” Joe Castellano said.
Off-duty police officers from in and out of Nutley also attended the rally and were among the many observers who later packed the assembly chambers for the commission meeting, including Chief Holland and his predecessor, retired Chief Robert DeLitta.
Neither spoke at the meeting but DeLitta, in a June 30 letter to Tusa, warned that appointing a civilian director in place of a chief “would spell disaster for the Nutley Police Department” because the department would “become saturated with politics.” And, he said, following Civil Service procedure is important because “… denying a deserving officer’s promotional opportunities can be devastating to the organization.”
At the meeting, the audience didn’t have to wait long for a dramatic confrontation when Tusa – the first public speaker – accused the mayor of “manipulation” in an effort “… to promote friends and allies” and to prevent Strumolo from becoming deputy chief, Petracco responded: “Let’s cut to the chase. You’re accusing me of trying to manipulate the system. Tell me who I’m favoring?”
“Which one?” replied Tusa, drawing cheers and applause from the heavily partisan crowd.
“Come on,” Petracco tried again. “Name the names.”
Tusa said he mentioned only Strumolo “because that [Civil Service promotional] list [for deputy chief] is the only one still alive” so to name anyone further wouldn’t be relevant.
Still, Petracco pressed on. “Who am I trying to reach? And why didn’t you fight for your captains? Aren’t they your members, too?”
Tusa said he would “never turn down” an opportunity for the department to get new members “to protect the town.” Cheers from the spectators greeted this pronouncment.
Nutley PBA Vice President James O’Halloran asked Petracco why he pushed for a “secret study” of the department’s organization for up to $17,500 “without talking to the chief of police” – especially, he added, when it’s the type of study “the Attorney General’s Office would do for free.”
Petracco deferred to Township Counsel Kevin Harkins, who characterized the study as “a work in progress. If the mayor sees fit to release it, he will.”
Alluding to the possibility of allowing officers below the rank of captain to take the Civil Service promotional test for police chief, Petracco drew jeers from the audience when he said: “I don’t know what the big objection is to invite a little competition.” Not long afterward, the chambers fell silent when Police Lt. John Ryan approached the microphone to announce: “I’d like the opportunity to test for the [chief’s] position.”
Lodi PBA President Frank Debartola urged the commissioners to “treat [Strumolo] fairly for his hard work to this township,” and Bloomfield Police Officer John Cerchio urged them to treat the Civil Service process seriously or face the possibility of a costly lawsuit. “If you mess with their careers, they have a lifetime to [marshal the electorate to] get back at you.”
Getting the last word, Petracco told the crowd that, despite the accusations against him, “Every decision I make is for [the] 30,000 people [of Nutley]. Sometimes it’s easy to throw daggers from a safe distance.”
Six months ago, Petracco said, he had a conversation with Chief Holland about what to do when Holland retires Nov. 1 and “he told me I shouldn’t be thinking about that because we have someone [for the job, meaning Strumolo].”
Unfortunately, Petracco said, “we’re losing our biggest taxpayer [Roche] and we have an opportunity to save money in public safety. I compromised by not going to a civilian director. We could’ve saved $100,000 but I’m willing to compromise. We have one person in this arena to move up [but] we need to exercise all options.
“But to put a rat in front of this building, to deface this town, guys, we’re going in the wrong direction. Everyone’s got to be willing to compromise.”