Temporary truce in police conflict

Left photo courtesy Nutley municipal website; right photo courtesy Gina Mendola Longorzo law firm Mayor Alphonse Petracco (l.) and Capt. Tom Strumolo.
Left photo courtesy Nutley municipal website; right photo courtesy Gina Mendola Longorzo law firm Mayor Alphonse Petracco (l.) and Capt. Tom Strumolo.


By Ron Leir

Observer Correspondent


Have the two rival warriors turned True-blue partners?

Will there be peace behind the Blue lines? Maybe for now, but who knows how long the truce will last?

Mayor/Commissioner Alphonse Petracco, who runs the Nutley Department of Public Safety, said he’s ready to appoint Capt. Tom Strumolo as “provisional” chief of the department upon the retirement of Chief John Holland on Oct. 31.

But the mayor managed to interject a little Halloween scare into his assurance when asked if he intended to call for a state Civil Service test to pick a permanent chief.

“I don’t think I’m headed in that direction,” he said.

Petracco has previously talked about exploring the idea of naming a civilian director to run the Police Department as a way of economizing since a uniformed chief can command an annual pay well in excess of $100,000.

It’s unclear how much a director could expect to make but if the mayor chose to go that route, the candidate wouldn’t have to take a competitive exam for the job, which would be rated “unclassified” under Civil Service rules.

But in the meantime, there’s the surprise element of Petracco and Strumolo making nice – all the more surprising given that Strumolo – who is first on a Civil Service list for deputy police chief – on April 11 filed a notice of tort claim against the township, the Police Department and the mayor, seeking $2.5 million in damages for having “steadfastly refused to promote [him] to Deputy Chief ….”

And, on Oct. 11, Strumolo – by law – would be entitled to proceed with a formal law suit against the township.

But now, Petracco seems intent on offering the olive branch to the unhappy captain.

How did that come about? “The captain and I have met privately over a cup of coffee,” Petracco said, then interjecting the thought that a PBA rally held this summer outside Town Hall that supported Strumolo and attacked alleged political interference by the mayor – a demonstration the mayor characterized as a “dog and pony show” – needlessly fueled the conflict between him and Strumolo and “took on a life of its own – only for lack of communication.”

“[Strumolo] reached out to me in August,” Petracco continued, “and, at this point, he’s kind of won me over. I feel he’s kind of a good guy.”

Still, Petracco hedged on whether he liked Strumolo enough to install him as a permanent police chief.

“I want to see how he does and observe him [as provisional chief] first,” the mayor said. “The chief speaks for the members of the Nutley Police Department. I represent the interests of some 30,000 Nutley people. I’ve got to make sure we put the right person in there and I think we’re on our way.”

Asked if he’d continue to pursue plans to change the Table of Organization for the Police Department by eliminating a deputy chief rank while adding a captain slot, Petracco, again, was noncommittal.

“I’ll take it day by day,” the mayor said. “I want to stay on this track. There are always options. Right now, I’m not entertaining any other options. It’s my obligation to make sure we’re doing the right thing for our residents and our Police Department.”

However, when asked if would promote someone from the ranks to fill the vacancy that will be created by the soon-to-be promotion of Strumolo to the rank of provisional chief, Petracco was clear. “I do expect to replace the captain,” he said.

“And,” he added, “I will still take a hard look at our T.O. and at possibly restructuring our department.”

Strumolo declined comment on the sudden turnabout but one of his Chatham lawyers, Kara MacKenzie, said: “We are open to a total resolution of the matter. Capt. Strumolo would like to move forward.”

Asked if that meant that Strumolo would drop his lawsuit, MacKenzie wouldn’t answer.

Here’s what Civil Service rules, 4A:4-1.5, say about provisional appointments:

“A provisional appointment may be made only in the competitive division of the career service when all of the following conditions are met:

1. There is no complete list of eligibles, and no one remaining on an incomplete list will accept provisional appointment.

2. The appointee meets the minimum qualifications for the title at the time of the appointment, and,

3. The appointing authority certifies that failure to make the provisional appointment will seriously impair its work.”

If an exam is called for a position occupied by a provisional employee and that employee fails to take the exam, that employee “shall be separated from the provisional title” within 30 days by the employer. If an employer/ municipality fails to comply, it can be fined by the state.

Provisionals can generally stay up to a year in their titles.

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