Pennington Council discusses cops, kids, and trees; indicates Cuginos’ liquor license approval is near

The Pennington Council met for its November meeting last week to discuss analysis of its police force, investigation into a shade tree program, concern about the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance, and support for area restaurants.

Mayor Joe Lawver introduced the Police and Court Review Ad Hoc Committee (PCRAHC) by stating: “In light of George Floyd’s slaying and the [resulting] protests, and in discussions with Chief Pinelli, we thought it would be good to take a bit of a more objective review of how we operate the force in Pennington to make sure there was no systemic bias sneaking into our police operations.”

He further explained that the Council had, earlier this year, appointed the PCRAHC, which was composed of Council members Deborah Gnatt and Beverly Mills as well as community members Kathleen Nash and Chad Bridges, and he thanked the committee for its “hard and valuable work.” The Mayor also commended Pinelli and the rest of the force for embracing the PCRAHC’s effort.

Gnatt provided an outline of the work the PCRAHC did over the summer and its recommendations. She said that the police force had provided the group with arrest records from June 2016 to June 2020, broken down by race, gender, and age as well as personnel records from the Department, none of which she said “raised any red flags.” The PCRAHC also reviewed internal affairs and body cam reports and the one complaint of alleged discrimination that was received by the Borough relating a series of experiences by a resident driving through Pennington. Gnatt said that they tried to look into that allegation further, but the subject of the complaint did not respond to their attempts. She noted that Bridges also interviewed some Black males who live or work in Pennington and none reported feeling threatened or uncomfortable in town.

Therefore, she said the PCRAHC concluded that they did not find any data that supports systemic bias in the Pennington police force. They did note that there are no female officers on the force and Chief Pinelli brought up that the force’s standard operating procedures are outdated but that the Department is too small to take on the task of thoroughly revising them.

Gnatt said PCRAHC recommends the hiring of the Rogers Group consulting firm, headed by retired state police lieutenant Frank Rogers, which has consulted to most of the municipal police departments in New Jersey. The Rogers Group, she explained, helps police departments receive accreditation from the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police (NJSACOPS) and will give advice on ensuring their rules, regulations, and procedures are up to date.

Nash commented that she was appreciative of Gnatt’s leadership and the cooperation the committee had from the Police Department. Neither Bridges nor Mills were in attendance at the Council meeting.

Council Member Kit Chandler said that the public safety committee is now using the information the ad hoc committee assembled to create a five-year plan for the police force.

In her other committee reports, Gnatt noted that, in its most recent meeting, the planning board adopted NJ Department of Community Affairs guidelines for open public meetings via webinars. The planning board also allocated funding for the environmental commission to summarize data for use in the Borough’s Master Plan, and that work needs to be done by the planning board in consultation with the Fair Share Housing Center regarding Pennington’s purported obligation for 180 affordable housing units, which she said cannot be met in the Borough. 

Kate Fullerton, a member of the Borough’s Shade Tree Commission, spoke to the Council about a potential tree giveaway program which, she said, has been an ongoing idea for several years. Fullerton said that getting trees to grow on the small strip of land between the street and the sidewalk is difficult, so the Commission is working on ways to get residents to grow trees on their front yards instead.

Fullerton explained that a barrier to providing trees for residents to plant has been the inability to use public money for private use, and that the City of Philadelphia initiated a program to purchase trees through private grant funding, an idea she believes could be replicated in Pennington. She suggested that private fundraising could be accomplished here and that Friends of Hopewell Valley Open Space could be approached to administer a grant.

Lawver responded, “I am fully in support of this and would love to see Shade Tree come up with a way to facilitate planting of trees in the front yards so that we can get the benefit but hopefully have a longer lasting effect than what we can do with the space that we have.”

Fullerton concluded that she the Commission will continue to work on details and hopes that such a program would contribute to preserving the Pennington tree canopy.  

A routine presentation of a shared services agreement for the Hopewell Valley Municipal Alliance (HVMA) led to discussion of concerns about how the HVMA is run. Borough Administrator Eileen Heinzel presented an agreement that had been sent to each Valley municipality by Hopewell Valley Regional School District (HVRSD) Assistant Superintendent for Business Robert Colavita. Heinzel explained that the agreement had elicited some questions from Hopewell Borough Administrator Michele Hovan, so the Pennington Council did not need to vote at this point, and she just was sharing to update to the Council. She further explained that the agreement was being disseminated in light of the switch of oversight of the Municipal Alliance from Hopewell Township to the HVRSD; previously Hopewell Township administered the grants that fund the HVMA and provided office space, now the HVRSD will instead.

Councilmember Glen Griffiths said that he was very surprised that the agreement indicates the HVMA has an unused fund of $190,000. Further he said that he finds the agreement “quite vague”.

“I would go back to Colavita and ask them to be more specific in terms of what this money is going to be used for,” he stated.

Griffiths said that he does not understand why so much money is unused. He said that he believes that, ideally, the money the HVMA is given should be spent down every year and be “consistent with reporting requirements like other non-profits.” He said that he believes the HVMA should be reporting on the population that is being treated with metrics and a simple accounting of disbursements. “To me,” he said, “this is just a slush fund with a kind of mission that sounds great but is so loosy goosy it almost looks ineffective. It looks like a recipe for lip service to the problem.”

Chandler said that she agreed with Griffiths, and outlined what she would like to see in terms of establishing baseline metrics throughout the school system, “to see progression of mental health issues so they know what they’ve got and in 12th grade what left the door.” 

“They have good intentions and they’ve done some good things but now what?” she asked.

Griffiths and Chandler both underlined the need for addressing mental health for children in the school district, noting that it is often the underlying issue leading to substance abuse and that they would like to see more measuring work done by the HVMA in that regard.

Lawver pointed out that the shared services agreement before them “basically replaces the one we already have in effect, which is steering the money not to Hopewell Township, but to the school district.” He said he also had noted that there are programs being run, but no metrics being taken and that he was “shocked” that there is $190,000 sitting there while the HVMA continues to ask the towns for more money.

“It seems ridiculous they are asking for more money until they demonstrate they can use some of the resources they already have,” Lawver said, adding that he will keep pressing the HVMA to be a more accountable organization and effort than it has been in the past.

The Council approved an extension to Cugino’s new restaurant “Boro’s” application for a liquor license. Borough attorney Walter Bliss said the restaurant is “very close” to final approvals. He explained that the law requires a process of several weeks of notifications following issuance of the final certificate of occupancy before the Borough can give final approval for the license.  Chandler and Councilmember Chico Marciante expressed dismay that Cuginos has to continue to wait for approvals

“This is crazy!” Chandler exploded. “They’ve spent a boatload of money and now we’re going to discuss whether it’s okay to issue the license?”

The Council agreed to expedite notifications and to hold a meeting to discuss approval at the earliest possible time.

Also regarding restaurants, the Council voted to extend permission for one more month of outdoor dining by Main Street restaurants. There was some discussion that collection of garbage by the restaurants should be a prerequisite of approval, but ultimately the Council agreed that there is only one more month left in the season and that the Council would revisit that requirement in the spring.

A Communities of Light presentation will be held on December 2 by WomenSpace, which Lawver noted was founded in 1977 “and does a fantastic job providing emergency shelter for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.” He said light kits are available at Pennington Quality market and other local retailers.

The next scheduled meeting of the Pennington Council is December 7.

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