COURT HOUSE – Middle Township’s recently retired police chief, Christopher Leusner, is all but certain to win a seat on the township’s governing body in the November election. He is on the ballot as a Republican, and is unopposed.
Leusner retired after 26 years in the Middle Township Police Department, where he rose from an entry-level police officer in 1997 to chief beginning in 2009. An ardent proponent of community policing, he has frequently argued that enforcement is only one aspect of a police department’s mission.
As chief he championed community outreach programs that sought to build trust between residents, especially youth, and police officers. Now he wants to take his commitment to the township in which he grew up to a new level as a member of the three-person governing body.
Leusner has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s in administrative science. His father served on the Township Committee in an era when Democrats controlled the governing body. He lives in Swainton with his wife and four children, who are between the ages of 10 and 16.
He has also taken on a new responsibility with the county, serving as the acting superintendent of the Cape May County Department of Mosquito Control. Leusner said the county needed someone with management experience who could step in quickly. As for how long he will be in the position and whether he might be offered the position permanently, he had no response except to say, “I’m there for as long as they need me.”
Asked what he feels are the major challenges facing the township, Leusner began by speaking about quality of life issues in the Rio Grande section of the township. Rio Grande has most of the township’s homeless, many with mental health issues. It is an area plagued by petty crime and use of illegal substances.
Leusner said that the township is addressing the problem, but that much more remains to be done to improve the experiences of those who live there or just visit. The area is a major retail center for the county.
He also focused on the financial challenges facing the township. During his campaign, Leusner has emphasized his commitment to fiscal responsibility in the management of public funds. He spoke of the need for other sources of municipal revenue since over 60% of the township budget depends on property taxes. He said he was hopeful that a controlled opening of the township to the emerging cannabis economy would produce a strong source of added funds.
Middle Township has been one of the only reliable areas of population growth in Cape May County. Leusner said that gives the township an opportunity to grow its ratables base.
Attracting and retaining township employees is also a challenge he sees as he prepares for life as an elected official. He said his years in the police department made clear the challenges that face a municipality trying to recruit staff in a competitive environment like that of Cape May County.
Leusner also talked of the need for more affordable housing in the township and the county. He spoke positively about the two affordable housing complexes in Rio Grande and Court House, both run by Conifer, a national firm with considerable experience in affordable housing management. He said his experience as police chief showed that the two apartment complexes made positive contributions to the community with housing for working families.
“We need more of these affordable housing opportunities in the county, but this should not be a task only placed on Middle Township,” he said.
The homeless problem in the township has no silver bullet, he said; it has roots in the mental health crisis impacting the state and the nation. As an elected official Leusner hopes to “shine a light” on the problem, including what he said was a need for better laws concerning involuntary commitment.
He spoke of the experience of police officers who take mentally impaired individuals who may also be involved with substance abuse to the hospital for evaluation. The current laws allow the individuals to be released back into the community, often resulting in situations where laws are broken and the individual ends up in the county jail.
Leusner also said local elected officials have to speak out on what he sees as bad public policy, like the recent pandemic-induced eviction moratorium.
“Some people needed the protection,” he said, “but the regulations were so broad that people who never lost employment used the moratorium to avoid paying rent.”
He said he knew of one proposed apartment development project that the developer pulled back from because he could not take the risk associated with the moratorium.
Asked about having oversight over his old police department as an elected official, Leusner said he would never interfere in the day-to-day operations of the department. He said he had great confidence in the new chief, Jennifer Pooler.
In summing up, Leusner said, “I will work my heart out for the citizens of Middle Township.”
Contact the author, Vince Conti, at firstname.lastname@example.org.