At the last meeting of the West Deptford township committee, it took a motion from the floor and a strong showing from local and regional law enforcement, past and present, to promote Acting Chief Samuel "Sparky" DiSimone to full Chief.
It was an unusual move, given that most civil service promotions and appointments are cleared in closed session well in advance of a government meeting, and are added to meeting agendas with enough time for family members to see their loved ones sworn in.
But the convention of that process was bucked entirely in DiSimone's case, after nearly two months had passed since outgoing Police Chief Craig Mangano formally recommended his deputy chief for the position in his retirement letter.
Although the township committee confirmed DiSimone's appointment with a unanimous vote in August, the delay in removing the conditional title from his office had given some of his fellow law enforcement officers concerns that a familiar process was not being followed, and that the department could suffer as a result.
And with a township committee election looming in November, the idea that a departmental appointment as important as chief of police could be left possibly until the re-organization meeting of the local government did not sit well among many in attendance.
West Deptford Patch took a look into the process behind the appointment in an effort to explore the mechanisms at work.
'It's always been that way'
There are tests for promotions of patrolmen to the ranks of corporal, sergeant, and lieutenant ranks in the department, DiSimone said; in fact, those were re-codified as oral exams by local ordinance of the township committee earlier this year.
When an officer reaches the rank of lieutenant, the first step in line for a higher-ranking position like deputy chief, as which DiSimone served under the recently retired Mangano, “you’ll actually have an interview with the township committee,” DiSimone said.
“And then if you become deputy chief they start grooming you to be the chief,” he said. “It’s always been that way.”
When DiSimone was approved by the township committee as acting chief over the summer, he expected that the conditional tag would be removed from his rank soon after.
Past precedent notwithstanding, he said, the 5-0, unanimous committee vote confirming his appointment led him to think so too.
“I’m thinking, ‘What did I do wrong?’” DiSimone said. “They voted 5-0 to make me acting chief, and then they took a break from it and they stopped."
DiSimone wasn’t the only one to assume that something was amiss. The rows of officers who ringed the walls of the township courtroom during the October 1 local government meeting included members of the Gloucester County Police Chiefs Association and PBA Local 122.
DiSimone said that his brothers-in-arms likely were reading into the delay that his appointment was becoming politicized. Still, he’d asked the union to give him a little breathing room on the issue. He said he’d only learned hours before the committee meeting that they would be attending.
“I am not soliciting anybody to come to the meetings,” DiSimone said; "I found out at 3 p.m. If they come, I have no control of that. Our union didn’t say a word. They just wanted to see first-hand [what the situation is].
“I told them ‘don’t come out, don’t do anything,’” DiSimone said. “Then it came back to me that they were still going to do their process.”
'Bing, bang, boom'
Mayor Ray Chintall said that the promotion of an acting
chief to a full chief is not an automatic move, and that it certainly isn’t a
From his experience as a commander within the New Jersey State Police, Chintall said he oversaw 45 troopers at the Ft. Dix barracks, and that “a lot of chiefs in that area that were acting chiefs for several months” before moving up to assume full rank.
“Why is it almost automatically in Gloucester County that it’s bing, bam, boom?” Chintall said.
“It’s nothing going against what Sparky was,” he said of DiSimone. “I knew Sparky as a deputy chief; going to a chief is a whole different matter. He has more autonomy than any department head, than anybody. That’s not bad, it’s good.
“With my position, with my background, I just wanted to give some time,” Chintall said. “To my knowledge, I’m probably one of the first [mayors] in the entire county in the position that had prior police experience.”
Chintall said that with the joint title of mayor as well as public safety director for West Deptford, he had additional insight into the responsibilities of the position, but no interest in micro-managing it, adding that his leadership “was completely hands-off” under Mangano.
But the mayor also alluded to there being some questions from Committeeman Sam Cianfarini about DiSimone’s promotion, noting that “everybody should be entitled to their concerns,” and that he believes his job as mayor is to slow the process down when that’s the case.
“When Sparky was promoted to deputy, Sam was the only one
who wanted that interview,” Chintall said.
“Why he needed an interview with the chief, I don’t know,” he said. “The other four, we had no issues. But as the mayor, I have to at least listen to everybody’s concerns.”
'Every twist and turn has political overtones'
Chintall said that he was upset at the notion that “every twist and turn has a tendency to have political overtones” in the township, and added that he had no intention of DiSimone’s appointment being in any way political.
He further expressed regret that the motion to promote DiSimone had come from the floor instead of making it to the agenda, which would have given the new chief time to gather his family for a formal swearing-in ceremony.
“It was just unfortunate,” Chintall said. “I was trying to make it on the first of the month, but we were just talking about it and I didn’t want to do it in the work session.”
Chintall said he’d never intended to contradict Mangano’s recommendation to promote DiSimone, and confirmed that DiSimone’s promotion clears the way for Lt. Sean McKenna to assume the rank of Deputy Chief.
'I don't know that status quo is best'
Chintall also said that he was unaware of any longstanding, if tacit, agreement among the political leadership of the township and its police department to not interfere with the recommendation of the outgoing police chief in the handling of his successor.
At the last committee meeting, former West Deptford police chief Joseph Butts scolded the elected officials for interfering with the process, which he said “sends a bad message to the community and a bad message to your police department.”
“Historically for years, township committees have honored that process and endorsed the new chief in a timely fashion,” Butts told Patch after that meeting. “I don’t know what happened but it wasn’t happening here.”
“That was new to me,” Chintall said, “but I’m not surprised by it. It doesn’t make it right. I understand and respect Chief Butts’ opinion.”
Cianfarini also said that he “wasn’t aware of that understood agreement,” and confirmed that he was the only committee member to interview DiSimone prior to his appointment as deputy chief as well as chief.
“I don’t know that status quo is what best suits our people,” Cianfarini said. “I wasn’t aware that this had to be done immediately; I’m not aware that it’s that political of an issue.”
Cianfarini further indicated that his conversations with DiSimone led him to believe that although he was aware that the police union was asking about the delay in promoting the acting chief, DiSimone was “in no rush” to assume his full title.
“In the past, what we’ve done with the sergeant and lieutenant positions is we have a closed session and a group interview,” Cianfarini said, adding that he “didn’t believe there was a structured process” to the appointment.
“I was prepared” to vote on the appointment, Cianfarini said. “I just hope the rest of the committee was prepared.”
Cianfarini described DiSimone as “a qualified chief” and said that in their discussions, he asked the officer about “community policing issues,” among other things.
'I wasn't going to make waves'
DiSimone said that the first time he and Cianfarini spoke was when he interviewed for the deputy chief position in 2012, during which the committeeman told him, “If I give you the okay now to be deputy chief, then I’m giving you the okay to be chief.”
DiSimone also said that although he told Cianfarini he wasn’t in a rush to assume the full chief’s title, it didn’t mean that he didn’t want it, or that he was feeling the pressure to resolve the process any less.
“When they came to me and told me I was not going to be promoted in September, was I upset?” he asked.
“Sure, anybody who strives to become chief, of course they’re going to be upset. I’m not the type of person that’s going to pout. I’m just going to do my job.
“I wasn’t happy with it, but I wasn’t going to make waves over it,” DiSimone said.
For those who don’t understand why the delay in the promotion had an impact on the department, DiSimone said the acting chief title can be something of a handicap for policy enforcement and creation that can interrupt the smooth transition of leadership when an outgoing chief retires.
DiSimone said he had no intention of disrupting the continuity of the day-to-day department operations from his desk, but that as acting chief, he also lacked the command authority to make any real changes, even if necessary.
“When I say something as the acting chief, they say, ‘I guess it’s okay for now,’” he said. “You have no stability. You don’t know how long I’m the acting chief. I did not know when or if I was going to be promoted.
“The difference is now when I say something, or if I put a policy into effect, they now know we’re staying with that and that’s how it’s going to be for the next five years, or until I decide to change it,” DiSimone said.
Even after everything that’s taken place since August 16, the chief said he still looks forward “to having a professional and productive relationship with each and every committee member” in the township government.