City of Newburgh Police Lieutenant Joe Cortez has been placed on medical leave after three months of serving as the acting head of the City of Newburgh Police Department. His departure has put the city’s residency requirement for department heads into sharp focus.
Cortez abruptly went on medical leave early last week. Lieutenant Aaron Weaver has since taken over as acting head of the department. “My intention is to maintain Lt. Weaver during Joe Cortez’s convalescence,” City Manager Michael Ciaravino said, for the sake of continuity at the police department. “I anticipate that Lt. Weaver will stay in command until a new police chief is named.”
Cortez was the third man to serve as de facto police chief in the last year. Weaver will be the fourth. The situation has drawn attention to the city’s 2015 rule that department heads must live in the City of Newburgh.
“In order to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of the city where emergencies and emergency work arise, it is necessary that the officers and department heads reside in the city,” the city municipal code states.
The rule applies regardless of where they lived before taking their positions. In addition to police officials, several other department heads – the acting fire chief, the comptroller and water superintendent, among them – do not live inside city limits.
The residency rule has impeded the hiring of permanent department heads, said Ciaravino. It also contributes to the insecurity “that has always dogged the City of Newburgh,” he said. “We need to be flexible with waivers for residency,” Ciaravino asserted.
Not everyone agrees the residency rule poses a problem. Councilwoman Cindy Holmes spoke out in support of the rule at a Newburgh City Council meeting on July 9.
“I feel that our leaders should live in the city,” said Holmes, who lobbied to have the rule put in place. Department heads need to understand the struggles that city residents experience, she said. “I feel that those struggles should be shared by the leaders of this city, who make triple what I make,” Holmes said.
Police and fire officials are crucial when it comes to maintaining public safety, Councilman Torrance Harvey said. “Do you want to move forward without having a police chief and fire chief… or do we want to make an amendment or compromise?” Harvey asked.
“We have set rules in place that have created a situation where we have to eliminate certain people,” said city Mayor Judy Kennedy. “We’re cutting off our nose despite our face. We want the top employees available.” The mayor added, “We have people who live outside the city who love this city with a passion.”
Ciaravino offered Lt. Cortez as an example. “He grew up here, but lives outside city,” Ciaravino said. “I don’t want to lose any more Dan Camerons.”
The city manager was referring to former acting police Chief Dan Cameron, who left the police force to pursue a job in the private sector in March. Like the other department heads, Cameron was not a city resident. Neither are three firefighters who recently passed a fire-chief exam, Ciaravino said.
“They are all in latter stages of their careers,” the city manager said. “All established their homes before the mortgage meltdown. I don’t believe they are willing to sell their homes at a loss to take the position. And, they are not interested in the position if there is no job security.”
City Corporation Counsel Michelle Kelson has been directed to draft legislation to modify the residency requirement “to get past this leadership challenge,” Ciaravino said. “I’d like to address the fire-chief vacancy first. If we can address the residency issue, it will give us a path forward.”
The city manager will address the residency law at the city council work session at City Hall on Thursday, Aug. 10.
By SHANTAL RILEY