EXETER — The borough council on Tuesday accepted a notice of retirement from police Chief John McNeil and followed up with a contentious vote to advertise for a director of public safety.
Mayor Herman Castellani read aloud McNeil’s letter of resignation and presented it to the council. It was accepted unanimously and McNeil’s retirement became effective Thursday.
Castellani and several council members thanked McNeil for his 41 years of service in law enforcement, 32 of those years as the borough police chief.
The council then voted unanimously to appoint Sgt. Michael Coolbaugh as officer in charge until someone is found to assume oversight of the department on a permanent basis.
In a surprise move not listed on the agenda, Councilman Joseph Esposito motioned to have the borough advertise for a public safety director.
Earlier this year, council discussed replacing the police chief position with a public safety director position.
Councilmen John Morgan and Joseph Pizano unsuccessfully tried to have the motion tabled, and it passed 4-2, with Esposito, Lawrence Dellegrotto, Richard Turner and Thomas Shannon voting yes, and Morgan and Pizano opposed. Denise Adams was absent.
“I feel we have guys in-house right now that are very capable of stepping up and taking over this department,” Morgan said, explaining his vote after the meeting. “We have a total of two full-time officers right now that have over 50 years of service and are more than willing to step in and oversee the day-to-day operations of this department.”
The full-time officers to whom Morgan referred are Coolbaugh and Sgt. Leonard Galli.
But Esposito said Coolbaugh is the only officer eligible to be chief because Galli is on probation and is not eligible for promotion for five years.
McNeil explained after the meeting that the police contract requires a police chief be appointed from the current ranks of the department and must have five or more years experience. The council can skirt the contractual issue by creating a public safety director position and assigning departmental oversight to the director rather than to a police chief.
“You don’t need somebody dictating from the council how to run the police department,” Morgan said, hinting that the council’s police committee could have more control over the department if a public safety director were appointed instead of a chief. Esposito is committee chairman.
Esposito said hiring a public safety director is “not being considered; what we’re doing is having an option — do we want to go A or do you want to go B? Let’s see what A is, let’s see what B is and at that point make an intelligent decision,” Esposito said.
He noted that the council discussed the position months ago, before McNeil indicated he was interested in retiring.
“The chief shocked us,” Esposito said. “We were under the impression he was going to give us six months because he told us last year he was thinking about retiring.”
Esposito said the council doesn’t know if Coolbaugh wants to be chief of police. “He doesn’t either, he’d have to think about it.”
Coolbaugh, who attended the meeting, said he is “interested in applying for whatever position the borough would create to be the officer that’s in charge of this department. (The council is) aware that I’m interested.”
Coolbaugh said he’s been with the department 33 years, 30 of them working full-time and all of them working with McNeil, whom he said would be missed.
As for McNeil, he said he was retiring “because I don’t like the direction that the borough is going right now with respect to some cuts that are anticipated. And besides, after 41 years, it’s time for somebody else to see what direction they can take it.” He hopes to find a different part-time job in law enforcement.
Asked if rumors that he was being forced out of the department by the council were true, McNeil paused for a moment and replied: “They came up with a set of rules and shift changes that (wouldn’t) actually be compatible to my lifestyle. So it’s my choice, nobody forced me. I’m walking out the front door, nobody’s forcing me out the back door.”