By Rosemary K. Otzman
Van Buren Township Public Safety Director Gregory Laurain has been working without a second in command since he was named to his position on July 17. There are 37 sworn officers in the department.
Before that, he and Ken Brooks were captains, and were second in command to several different public safety directors. Then Brooks retired and Laurain was the lone captain for a year and then promoted.
Laurain left his union which required freezing of his pension to take the administrative position. That was the POLC Command Officers Union.
He said after he was promoted, Supervisor Linda Combs told him to put his second in command on hold since they were looking at going in a different direction, to have a police chief or assistant chief as a non-union position.
But he’s still wearing two hats five months later, which puts a lot of instability in the police department, he said.
Laurain said the department has 25-30 officers that the township has spent from $2.5 to $3 million each in individual salary and training that are ready to move upward. But, he said, because of a flawed pension system, anyone who leaves the union for any reason has his pension frozen. He said it’s a real hardship for the individual.
Laurain said the township needs to get a squad pension system first. As of Nov. 26, that second in command position was removed from the 2014 budget.
He said three are eligible for that position, but it needs to be posted first.
At Monday’s 39-minute work/study session to discuss the “Police Captain vacant position” there was a bare quorum of board members, with Treasurer Sharry Budd and Trustees Phil Hart and Brenda McClanahan absent.
“We have three people absent. Greg needs help,” said Trustee Jeff Jahr, naming his concerns. “The opportunity is now to reach a resolution on how we’re going to go.”
He said the board has to look forward to a good solution for the future. He said he doesn’t like the “union vs. non-union” part of the problem, but, “I personally think the person in command shouldn’t be paid overtime.”
He said the fire chief goes out without overtime and Laurain goes out without overtime.
He said the second in command should be a management position. He said internal candidates feel they can’t afford a management position.
“It’s not a glass ceiling. It’s a solid ceiling,” Trustee Jahr said. “… We can’t promote from within.”
He said the organizational chart should be made without regard to personalities and that position should be management.
Jahr said if Laurain leaves in four years, a captain below him couldn’t afford to take over the position. He said it’s not only the pension, but it’s the blended rate some get for fire fighter work and it’s the overtime they get.
“We need to train a police chief able to move up,” Jahr said.
Laurain said he’s talked to people in the department and they have no second thoughts about salary loss, but they would have to freeze 10 years of pension.
Jahr referred to the 2004 Kelly & Stone report on the department that said there should be no deputy or chief of police and said he doesn’t like pulling out a 10-year-old report to justify current decisions.
He said the board talked about having a public safety director, fire chief, and police chief.
“We have a chance to fix it now,” Jahr said. “Not because Greg needs help. Not because of personalities. But what makes sense with the organizational structure. Now is the time to address some of these problems.”
Trustee Reggie Miller had asked for a discussion on the captain’s position, along with Budd and McClanahan, but she was the only one present at the meeting on Monday, so she led the discussion.
She asked how much the position would cost the township.
Laurain said the township has never had a chief of police before.
Supervisor Combs said it is estimated that $130,000 would cover a salary of $80,000 plus benefits for a chief of police. She said she didn’t know what union captain wages are.
Trustee Miller said to Laurain that he needs help, but the board has to figure it out.
Supervisor Combs said she supported the position of captain. She said Public Safety Directors Jerry Champagne and Carl McClanahan had union captains as second in command and it worked out well.
“The buffer has to be a person you can trust … someone who is here,” Combs said of a second in command. “Greg says he can control the overtime … Let him do his job and make him accountable for the consequences if he can’t control he overtime.”
Laurain said trust is a huge factor and the second in command needs to have the same ideas, know the department, and have stakes in this community. He said the township hired outside people in the past and they stayed 1, 2, 3 years and left.
“I have people who can start running right now,” Laurain said. “Do we want to go out when we have people right here?”
Miller said she would like to think about this issue and others agreed, so it was not put on the next day’s meeting agenda.
“If we choose a captain, we put it in the budget. Or, if it’s a police chief, we need a job description,” Jahr said. “The decision comes down to: How are we gonna pay for it.”
By Rosemary K. Otzman