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Independence Twp. creates new ‘Head of Police Dept.’ position, declines to fill it immediately

INDEPENDENCE TOWNSHIP, NJ (Warren County)—The Independence Township Committee passed an ordinance to create a new “department head of police” position in the municipal government at a meeting Tuesday night which several residents and nearly the entire township police department attended.

Despite passing the ordinance, the committee backed away from filling the position immediately.

“The whole police department seems to be satisfied with the way things are being run. There’s no need immediately to appoint a police director,” said Mayor Bob Giordano in an interview. “We’re going to hold that in abeyance and see how things go. In the event that things go awry, we’ll certainly appoint someone to help.”

Instead, the Mayor and several community members that commented publicly on the ordinance praised the current Officer in Charge, Lieutenant Christopher Prell, and expressed confidence in his continued leadership of the department. The committee also approved a stipend of $300 “per pay” for Prell, who Giordano said will work regular hours at the station from 9 AM to 4 PM, Monday through Friday.

“Right now I have a lot of confidence in our police department,” said Independence resident, Dorothy Jaworski. “I’m comfortable with their leadership. I’d be just as happy if it would remain status quo until the current situation with our chief is resolved.”

Despite pointed questions from the public regarding Chief of Police, Keith Aiello, and his alleged alcohol use on the night that he crashed his township-owned Chevy Tahoe, officials remained tight-lipped about the allegations.

“I had to move out of Independence because my taxes were so high and I just feel it’s ridiculous, if the chief really was drunk driving, to be paid for it,” said former Independence resident, Vicki Budd.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Budd asked the committee to address a rumor that Aiello was appointed as Chief despite never passing the Civil Service Commission’s eligibility exam. Officials, including the town clerk, strongly insisted that they followed Civil Service regulations in the hiring of Aiello as Chief. Indeed, through an Open Public Records Act request from the state Civil Service Commission, WRNJ obtained documentation showing that Aiello’s eligibility for appointment as Chief in Independence was certified in May 2017 and that he was appointed in July 2017.

Questions about Aiello prompted the township attorney, Leslie Parikh of Gephardt and Kiefer, to defend the committee’s silence. She implored residents to give the prosecutor time to finish his investigation into Aiello’s crash and allow the committee to review the prosecutor’s findings before they comment on the matter.

The Warren County prosecutor, Richard Burke, still has not provided any sort of timeline for completion of the investigation. It is unclear whether his office will release their findings in time for Aiello’s disciplinary hearing, which was rescheduled for April 26th after Aiello’s attorney, Stuart Alterman, requested more time for the evidence discovery process to continue.

“We’re gonna go ahead with that hearing one way or the other. Hopefully they’ll be in attendance. If they’re not, we’re gonna present our facts,” said Mayor Giordano.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the committee resolved to hire Thomas Porelli, Esq. at a rate of $160 per hour plus expenses, to serve as a “hearing officer,” also known as a special counsel, at Aiello’s hearing. Mayor Giordano said during an interview that, once Porelli makes his recommendation following the disciplinary hearing, the Township will be closer to a final decision on Aiello

“I think that Lt. Prell is very qualified to handle the job until they can appoint a chief, but I do believe the town should have a chief at some point,” said Budd.

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