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Camden Council OKs police director

The measure would install a civilian to oversee the department. The state also has agreed to hire a police chief.

The Camden City Council adopted an ordinance last night creating the position of civilian police director to head Camden's embattled police department.

After a brief public hearing on the proposal that drew reaction from both sides, Council approved the measure, 5-1, with one member absent.

Theodore Z. Davis, the city's state-appointed chief operating officer, is expected to approve the measure.

It is unlikely, however, that last night's vote will end the controversy surrounding leadership of the state-run police department.

It could set the stage for a showdown between Council and Davis over control of the nearly 500-member police department, which has been plagued for years with infighting and management problems.

"This is really an ongoing battle," Council President Angel Fuentes acknowledged in an interview yesterday. He wants state Attorney General Anne Milgram to name a police chief in addition to the civilian director, preferably from the Police Department's ranks.

Arturo Venegas, the city's state-appointed "supersession police executive," wants to become the civilian police director - a move Council opposes.

Because the position is a cabinet-level post, Davis gets to make the appointment, but he needs Council approval. Fuentes said a national search will be conducted to fill the position.

If Venegas was selected for the new job, it would install him permanently as civilian boss of the department, no longer under the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.

Davis has expressed support for Venegas to get the new job. Acting county Prosecutor Joshua Ottenberg, who oversees the Police Department, also backs Venegas.

"We're very pleased with the job that Venegas has been doing," said Jason Laughlin, a spokesman for Ottenberg.

Venegas, a former police chief in Sacramento, Calif., was appointed by the state in August 2006 to run the troubled department in one of America's most violent cities.

But Fuentes said Council members have concerns about Venegas, who has come under fire from local and Sacramento police-union officials who said he had been harsh and divisive in his former job.

Venegas has also been named in lawsuits by two Camden deputies alleging a hostile work environment or discrimination. Fuentes said morale in the Camden department is low.

The head of Camden's Organization of Police Superiors, the union that represents superior officers, asked Council yesterday "that the present leadership be changed."

"He hasn't done the job. No vision, no plan has come down," Sgt. William Murray said during the hearing.

The city's Fraternal Order of Police, the union representing rank-and-file officers, has opposed Venegas and called for his removal.

Venegas was on vacation in California yesterday and could not be reached for comment. He has said that he would play a more direct role in making changes in the department.

His backers say Venegas has made inroads in combating crime, shifted police captains and formed alliances with key community leaders. He has been credited with restoring confidence in his former department in California.

"If they were to bring [Venegas'] name right now, he would not get the support of City Council," Fuentes said."

Councilman Gilbert "Whip" Wilson, a retired city police officer, cast the sole dissenting vote against creating the civilian position. Wilson cited the city's budget woes, and offered no indication on whether he would support Venegas for the job.

Council in June took no action on the same proposal for a civilian police director. Fuentes said Council members supported it now because the state agreed to have a police chief in addition to the civilian director.

State officials who have the power to run Camden have said they believe the Police Department should function under a state-appointed leader for at least two years before a police chief from the department's ranks takes the helm.

At last night's meeting, Council also adopted an ordinance capping salaries at $150,000 for department-head positions, including that of the newly created police director. Venegas currently earns $175,000 a year.