Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

'Acting' Officials Draw Scrutiny

Newspaper article The Record (Bergen County, NJ)

'Acting' Officials Draw Scrutiny

Article excerpt

The swearing in of Gurbir Grewal as acting Bergen County prosecutor last week has sparked questions about the growing number of county prosecutors in the state with that title, and whether that tentative status could hinder their independence and effectiveness.

The concerns, coming from both sides of the political aisle as well as law enforcement experts, resound well beyond Bergen. Grewal, the Glen Rock resident who replaced John Molinelli as Bergen's top law-enforcement official, is now the fifth of the state's 21 prosecutors to wear the "acting" label -- men and women who serve with the endorsement of the governor but without the approval of the Legislature and without a commitment of the five-year term that normally comes with the post.

Even the state's attorney general -- John Jay Hoffman -- who oversees county prosecutor's offices in New Jersey, has been in an acting capacity since June 2013, his nomination never submitted by the governor to the Legislature.

While Democrats and Republicans point fingers about who's responsible for the failure to install permanent replacements in these key posts, they agree that there are disadvantages to adding yet another acting prosecutor to the state roster.

"That makes him more accountable to the governor and that's wrong," said Sen. Richard Codey, D-Essex, whose home county has an acting prosecutor. "Prosecutors have to be independent. It's as simple as that. So it's wrong, dead wrong."

Codey added: "It's not good for the office, it's not good for morale, it's not good for cases. Do you want to go to work there and know any day now I can lose my job because my prosecutor loses his job?"

Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Cresskill, said he saw a downside to having even one acting prosecutor, let alone five. He said it was not "a healthy situation," but sprang from the overly partisan atmosphere in Trenton where the Republican governor and the Democratic-controlled Legislature have sparred repeatedly over appointments.

"I don't believe that's the way the system should work," Cardinale said. "People often talk about the independence of the judiciary. Prosecutors can elect to go in one or another direction and really no one can do anything about their decision. Except, if you're an acting, it has to create some degree of insecurity -- or an appearance of insecurity at the very least."

Criminal-justice experts agree that interim leadership in law enforcement is less than ideal. Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said those serving in an acting capacity "are not viewed as seriously" as someone in the permanent post, especially in law enforcement, where status is attached to rank.

"This whole concept of having law-enforcement, high-profile positions staffed in a temporary manner ... is just detrimental to overall accountability of the organization," Haberfeld said.

Temporary leaders can be viewed as less committed, she said, and staff less likely to follow through on new policies and procedures. And where police organizations "should exude stability," an acting official at the helm, she said, is on "the opposite spectrum."

There is no limit to how long an acting county prosecutor can serve in New Jersey. A spokesman for the Attorney General's Office defined the term as "indefinite."

"In essence they all serve at the pleasure of the governor, and that is a very troublesome thing when one looks at the independence of these folks," said Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck.

In some cases, "indefinite" can mean a sizable stretch of time -- three have served in an acting capacity since Christie's first term. Carolyn Murray has been an acting prosecutor in Essex since February 2011, when she replaced another acting prosecutor who had held the position for about a year.

Monmouth's acting prosecutor, Christopher Gramiccioni, was appointed in July 2012; his predecessor became a Superior Court judge. …

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