Committee surprised by promotions following Mason’s resignation

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Following Police Chief Eric Mason’s resignation as interim administrator, effective Jan. 1, the township committee was a little surprised by promotions within the police department.

CRANFORD— Fallout from Eric Mason’s abrupt resignation as interim administrator resulted in an undercurrent of animosity last week after several promotions were made in the police department without elected officials’ knowledge.

Last week, Mason held a meeting with members of the police force to inform them of his resignation Dec. 31 as interim administrator as well as the fact he would be returning to only overseeing the police department.

At the same time, according to sources within the police department, Mason promoted Capt. Joseph Van Bergen to the head of administrative operations and Lt. Edward Davenport to another important position in police department administration. Police Lt. James Wozniak, selected by the governing body to replace Mason as police chief Jan. 1, was not included in the administrative shake-up within the department.

This was not able to be confirmed or denied by Mason because he did not return multiple calls made to him over the last week. However, several Township Committee members confessed they were confused that Mason went about making changes in the department without informing them first.

(See related story: Mason resigns as interim administrator)

If this came as a surprise to some members of the force, especially Police Lt. James Wozniak who was selected by the governing body in late September to be the township’s next police chief when Mason retired, it also gave governing body members pause.

Although the governing body selected Wozniak for the police chief position, Mason had supported Van Bergen or Davenport for the job.

While none of the committee members were dissatisfied with the job Mason did since Sept. 12, 2011 when he assumed the duel role of administrator and police chief, several felt it was clear he blamed the governing body for dragging their feet when it came to facilitating a smooth transition into the administrator position.

Specifically, the 35-year veteran of the police department felt the governing body did not actively pursue a “waiver” from the state treasury department that would have clarified whether he was eligible or not to receive a police department pension while moving into another position within the same municipality.

Mason indicated during the summer in an interview that he was waiting for confirmation from the state that he would be exempt from the new regulation adopted March 9 requiring public employees collecting a state pension to wait 180 days before assuming another position in the same municipality.

At that time Mason, along with the Township Committee, felt that because the decision to hire him took place Feb. 28, and the new regulation was not in effect until March 9, it might not apply in this particular case.

According to Treasury Department Spokesperson Bill Quinn, though, who originally spoke with LocalSource on this matter during the summer, issuing any type of waiver would be unusual.

“Regulations are up for interpretation. We can provide the township and Mr. Mason with an interpretation of a regulation, but we would not issue a waiver on something like that,” Quinn said in June.

In addition, Mason also wanted the township to give him a contract as administrator, one that would protect his position for a specific number of years. But, according to one municipal legal expert, the township cannot legally do this because the administrator serves “at the will of the township committee.”

Fallout involving Mason being appointed interim administrator and subsequently taking on the role permanently resulted in rumors surfacing on local blog Cranford Talk whether the police chief was qualified to assume the position of administrator.

While many felt Mason was an excellent police chief with a stellar background that included being honored as the head of the New Jersey Police Chiefs Association and a stint at the FBI Academy, others felt very strongly the police chief had violated protocol on multiple occasions in the past. Although these rumors were not substantiated, they have persisted for close to a year and continue today.

While taken aback about Mason’s resignation, governing body members, including Democrat commissioner elect Tom Hannon, were not letting any grass grow under their feet.

“I’m casting a wide net for an administrator,” Hannon said last week when asked about the situation the township is facing.

Likewise, Democrat Commissioner Kevin Campbell said this week the township will have to find an interim administrator to fill Mason’s shoes while a search committee tackles finding a permanent person for this position. He declined addressing the issue of whether Mason should have moved personnel around the department without informing the governing body.

The murky issue of exactly how much control a police chief has within his own department, when making promotions or changes, is murky. Although the majority of elected officials in other towns readily admitted their police chiefs reported directly to them, others seemed to feel that this was more of a curtesy rather than obligation by law.

Union County Prosecutor Theodore Romankow explained last week in an interview that police departments actually operate on a bifurcated system.

“As prosecutor I only get involved if a police department can’t handle the day-to-day operations for one reason or another,” he explained, adding, for example, that two years ago when Springfield was unable to run their police department, the prosecutors office stepped in to assume authority.

“In that regard, I oversee police departments,” Romankow added, but noted that police chiefs are empowered to make certain decisions that affect the operations of his or her department.

The prosecutor said police chiefs administer rules and regulations, make assignments and report either to a specific member or entire governing body in their municipality.

“The police chief is not the supreme authority,” the prosecutor explained, explaining that a governing body can use their power to discharge a police chief.

“It has to meet a very high burden, though,” Romankow stressed.

The prosecutor said the reason police chiefs in the state are endowed with certain powers has specifically to do with the state wanting to ensure this aspect of municipal government was “removed from political influence.”

“Once a police chief is in power, he is protected,” he added, noting, for instance that if police chiefs did not have this protection, political parties could remove them at will and appoint someone from their own party.

When it came to Mason, Romankow had no qualms about discussing the matter.

“He’s a cop’s cop from the word go,” the prosecutor said, adding he was “extremely happy Mason is the chief in Cranford.”

For his time as interim administrator, Mason received a $50,000 stipend. He currently makes about $150,000 a year as the chief of police.