LAVALLETTE — The Ocean County Prosecutor has kept Lavallette “in the dark” since taking control of the borough’s police department at the end of May, Mayor Walter LaCicero said in an interview with The Ocean Star on Tuesday.
Prosecutor Bradley Billhimer said last week that his office would continue to be “in full command” of the Lavallette police until he is satisfied that the department meets standards required for accreditation.
Christian LaCicero, named chief of police on Oct. 31 in an appointment Mr. Billhimer had recommended against, stated Tuesday that accreditation is the department’s goal but said he was not authorized to comment further. Chief LaCicero, a 17-year veteran of the police department, is also the son of the mayor.
Mayor LaCicero, who had been largely silent on the matter, is now voicing frustration with the prosecutor’s office and accusing it of of failing to share information about its ongoing command and review of the department.
“So why are they here? They won’t tell us,” the mayor told The Ocean Star on Tuesday. “What are the problems that they see? They won’t tell us. What are they planning on doing to fix us? They won’t tell us.”
The takeover by the Prosecutor’s office followed the retirement of former chief Colin Grant.
Mayor LaCicero has confirmed the borough’s receipt of a letter from Mr. Billhimer in which the prosecutor recommended against appointment of successor to Chief Grant while his office was “still in command and control,” adding that it would “do little to bolster the credibility of the department.”
“Should the Mayor and Council disregard our recommendation with the untimely appointment of a chief — the new chief will be required to report to the Officer in Charge appointed by this office,” the letter warned.
On Oct. 31, however, the borough council named Sgt. Christian LaCicero as the new chief. Mayor LaCicero said he had recused himself from the selection process because of their relationship.
The mayor insisted Tuesday that the borough had not treated Mr. Billhimer’s letter with disregard, but called the prosecutor’s recommendation “inappropriate.”
“We didn’t ignore the letter,” Mayor LaCicero said. “The letter was presented to our attorney who gave us a lot of good advice about what to do with the letter.
“We are required to fill that spot and we asked for a chief’s test a year ago because we knew that Colin would be retiring. They tested and then Colin retired and we have an opening. We are required by civil services rules to fill that opening.”
Further, the mayor said, a borough ordinance states “there shall be a chief of police.”
He said Tuesday that he had remained largely silent on the prosecutor’s intervention to avoid making the situation “worse than it needs to be,” and explained that it had been uncomfortable from the start.
“When this began I had a discussion with Mr. Billhimer and asked him, ‘Can you tell us why?’ He said, ‘I can walk into any police department in Ocean County any time I want and take it over and I don’t have to tell you why,’” Mayor LaCicero said.
In a statement emailed after Dec. 29 edition went to press last Thursday, Mr. Billhimer called the mayor’s quote “completely untrue. I never said that.”
He added that the issues raised by Mayor LaCicero “will be resolved through the borough’s police department.
“The Lavallette PD is comprised of some excellent law enforcement officers; we have every intention of working with each one of them, including Chief LaCicero, to make sure the department is in the best possible shape to ensure their collective ability effectively perform necessary law enforcement functions,” the prosecutor said.
“The fair administration of justice and the safety of the citizens of Lavallette are of paramount importance. We are committed to this endeavor and will continue to work with the Lavallette Police Department for as long as is necessary.”
‘Level of tension’
“I have been trying to keep the level of tension between our departments at a minimum,” Mayor LaCicero said Tuesday. “I was hoping that they [the prosecutor’s office] would just do what they needed to do and be on their way.”
But he said he decided to speak out after The Ocean Star published the new statement from Mr. Billhimer last week.
The statement, issued by Mr. Billhimer’s office said:
“The Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office is still in full command and control of the Lavallette Police Department. The appointment of a new Lavallette Chief of Police didn’t change anything. We will remain in full command and control until we are satisfied that the Lavallette Police Department meets the standard of applicable OAG Directives, OCPO Directives and is fully accredited. The newly appointed Chief, Christian LaCicero reports to the Officer in Charge as appointed by this Office.”
In response, Mayor LaCicero said Tuesday that, “Ocean County does not have any authority over us to tell us to do administrative, so they can do all the law enforcement part of it that they want, but the administrative, we have not given them authority to do that.”
Mayor LaCicero said there had been no changes in department operations under the prosecutor’s command, but added that the department has been fully compliant with state law enforcement guidelines before and during the prosecutor’s review.
He said that the prosecutor’s office has ignored requests by the borough for updates “which Title 40 and other state law requires them to do on a monthly basis and they just simply refuse to do it.”
“We are in the dark here,” the mayor said. “We’ve got to move on. We have had a staffing crisis… so we are in the middle of reorganizing.”
“They haven’t told us, do this or do that, they haven’t said anything. So we are not going to continue to eat that expense, we are going to reorganize and get the place where it needs to be.”
“We would like nothing more than for them to give us information. Tell us where we are at. What are our deficiencies?”
The mayor said he agrees that the Lavallette Police Department should seek accreditation but said that the borough and prosecutor had been unable to agree on how to achieve that goal. He said the borough needs to hire a consultant to guide the process but has not received a timeline or other information from Mr. Billhimer’s office that would enable it to proceed.
“Accreditation is a voluntary program,” the mayor said. “It is not required and [the county] can’t require us to do it.” But he added: “We want to do it, and have full intentions of doing it … We just haven’t had the manpower… we are willing to hire a consultant in order to do that, but they [the prosecutor’s office] have to give us a timeline.”
According to Borough Administrator John Bennett, Chief LaCicero has served in the Lavallette Police Department for 17 years, the last eight with the rank of sergeant, and passed the required Civil Service test for his new position.
Mr. Bennett said last week that he had shared that information with the prosecutor in response to his letter recommending against the appointment.
“I responded that we were appointing an experienced individual with leadership capacity to that chief’s position. We were not only obligated to, but that we were appointing someone competent and qualified to assume that role.”
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