By Donald Wittkowski
Presenting a unified front, the police chiefs from several neighboring departments appeared at a City Council meeting on Tuesday to show their support for Sea Isle City Police Chief Thomas D’Intino amid complaints about his leadership from rank-and-file police officers.
Speaking for the group, Middle Township Police Chief Christopher Leusner said D’Intino has been unfairly targeted by the officers’ labor union during an ongoing dispute over grievances, disciplinary action and contract matters.
“Sea Isle City is lucky to have such an experienced, professional police chief who looks after the best interests of the citizens of Sea Isle,” said Leusner, who also serves as president of the Cape May County Chiefs of Police Association and the vice president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police.
D’Intino and Leusner were joined at the Sea Isle Council meeting by the police chiefs from Ocean City, Wildwood, North Wildwood and Lower Township. Also showing their support for D’Intino were Cape May County Sheriff Gary Schaffer and retired Wildwood Crest Police Chief Thomas DePaul, who serves as director of the Cape May County Police Academy.
D’Intino and the other chiefs sat in the audience in the first two rows, but didn’t speak during the meeting other than to exchange some pleasantries with the Council members near the end.
In brief comments afterward, D’Intino offered assurances that the Sea Isle police department is functioning normally.
“It works,” he said in an interview. “We’re getting the job done. Nothing’s stopped. Everyone is being a professional.”
The police union claims the department suffers from “markedly low morale” and other alleged problems it blames on D’Intino.
City Council President William Kehner said the governing body fully supports D’Intino and believes he has done a good job. City Business Administrator George Savastano, the top official in Mayor Leonard Desiderio’s administration, defended D’Intino’s leadership and also rebuked the police union for its allegations.
The controversy was prompted by a Dec. 10 letter to Desiderio from Thomas A. Martino, vice president of the Cape May County Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 7, which represents Sea Isle’s rank-and-file officers. Savastano released a copy of the FOP letter on Tuesday, as well as a letter he wrote in reply.
“We are writing to formally advise you we have come to a point where we no longer have confidence in the leadership of Chief of Police Thomas J. D’Intino,” the FOP letter states. “Chief D’Intino has regularly engaged in conduct toward members of the department that can be described as both demeaning and insulting.
“In addition, the markedly low morale, lack of positive dialogue and failure to address situations involving training, equipment and grievances have brought us to this point,” the letter continues.
Savastano responded to the FOP in a Dec. 16 letter that both praised D’Intino and strongly criticized the union. He disputed the FOP’s allegations, chastising the union for the “apparent unwillingness” of its leadership to meet face-to-face with D’Intino to try to resolve the dispute. Instead of sitting down with D’Intino, the union sought a meeting with the mayor to discuss its complaints.
“To be clear, the Mayor, City Administration and City Council have complete confidence in the leadership of Chief D’Intino,” Savastano wrote in his letter. “To request a meeting with the Mayor without first attempting to even resolve these matters through a meeting with the Chief and the City’s business administrator is an affront to the City.”
Savastano also released a copy of a Dec. 23 email that he wrote that characterized the FOP’s letter as “an unseemly effort to circumvent the chain of command and appropriate due process by undermining and disparaging a highly decorated and credentialed police professional.”
D’Intino, a 27-year member of the police department, took over as chief in July 2008. Savastano said that under D’Intino’s leadership, the department “emerged from the stigma” of being under county monitoring to become an accredited police force that has the newest, state-of-the-art facilities in the county.
“Chief D’Intino has an exemplary record of leadership since taking command of the department,” Savastano said in his letter.
In its letter, the FOP raised concerns with “a lack of remediation of deficiencies in our new police headquarters.”
The FOP said it decided to criticize D’Intino’s leadership only after “great hesitation, much discussion and contemplation.”
“We have been, and remain, dedicated to serving and protecting the residents and visitors of Sea Isle City,” the FOP added in its letter.
At the end of 2015, the city reached a memorandum of agreement with the FOP on a new contract. Disputes continue, though, over grievances, disciplinary matters and contract issues, Savastano said.
Savastano said the city has been trying to resolve disagreements with the FOP in discussions or meetings with the union’s attorney and the Public Employment Relations Commission. An independent hearing officer is also reviewing matters between the city and FOP, he noted.
According to Savastano, both the city and D’Intino are willing to meet with FOP representatives to address the problems. The FOP said in its letter that the union also wants to sit down with city officials to discuss its concerns.