By Cheryl Hehl, Staff Writer
CRANFORD — After receiving clarification from the state, the township is moving forward this week with selecting a new police chief so Police Chief Eric Mason can retire and permanently assume the administrator’s spot.
Monday Deputy Mayor Andis Kalnins confirmed the township was able to clarify the confusion that arose in late May about a new state regulation that threw a wrench into the township committee’s decision for Mason to retire as police chief and transition into the administrator position as of June 1.
It also called a halt in May to the ongoing multi-step process to appoint a new police chief from among the ranks. That process, which was more than three-quarters completed in the spring, will resume this week where it left off, the deputy mayor said.
Mason assumed the duel role Sept. 12 when former township administrator Marlena Schmidt was placed on administrative leave and subsequently was let go at the end of the year.
When Mason assumes the new position of administrator, he will be collecting a pension for the 35 years he was on the police pension fund, a practice known as “double dipping.”
Double-dipping is an age old public practice where public employees retire, collect a pension and then are rehired by the same municipality, often the next day. Mason is not alone, though.
Union Police Director Dan Zieser, a former Newark Police Department employee, retired and within a year took the position of police director in Union. However, the police director is not enrolled in the Union Police Department pension system this time around and Mason will also not be on the municipal pension system, according to Kalnins.
Mason noted last spring that he worked for 35 years as a Cranford Police Department employee, working his way up as a police officer to police chief and is entitled to his pension.
The issue of whether Mason should be allowed to move into the administrator position after retiring as police chief raised the ire of some residents in the spring and it has not let up since.
In fact, discussion regarding this quickly became a hot topic on a local blog, Cranford Talk, with many rumors surfacing about the qualifications Mason possessed to assume the administrator position. Users of the blog continue to question Mason’s qualifications daily.
Nevertheless, the township has the right to choose an administrator from within and not publically post the position or interview from the outside, according to the state.
According to a salary ordinance approved by the township committee Nov. 14, 2011, the administrator position pays between $106,390 and $148,948. The police chief position pay range is between $112,497 and $142,000.
The deputy mayor said the governing body would be wrapping up the police chief interview process yesterday and today in order to name a new police chief “in the next week or two.”
He explained that because the four candidates for the top cop position had previously gone through background review and a written test, all that remained was for the candidates to be interviewed by the committee prior to reaching a decision.
“I think we can work through that process in a week or two,” the deputy mayor said Monday.
The candidates for police chief include Capt. Joseph Van Bergen, Lt. Edward Davenport, Lt. James Wozniak and Lt. Stephen Wilde, son of former police chief Harry Wilde. Harry Wilde was chief prior to Mason.
Kalnins would not comment on who the committee had narrowed the choice down to for police chief, but he admitted the decision was not one to take lightly.
“This is an important decision because it will affect the township for many years to come,” said the deputy mayor, adding the police chief is “the face of Cranford.”
Because of the confusion over the new regulation, the township had to suspend efforts to hire a new police chief from within the department, leaving Mason to juggle both the police chief and administrator roles until the State Treasury Department could provide clarification of the new regulation.
The new regulation required that any public employee intending to collect a pension from the state not take another position in the same municipality for 180 days.
Previously, public employees could retire from one position, collect their pension and immediately assume another position in the same municipality or another. However, public employees who opted to do this were not allowed to participate in the state pension plan the second time around.
The question of whether the new regulation actually could be applied in Mason’s case was not so clear cut. Specifically because of the timing of when the township made the decision.
According to township committee meeting records, it was Feb. 28 when the governing body unanimously approved Mason to take over as administrator immediately following his retirement May 31. This was prior to the new regulation going into effect March 9.
According to State Treasury Department Bill Quinn, the question of whether the regulation applied or not was “murky.”
“The actual situation of when the governing body made the decision to bring Mason aboard certainly has something to do with whether this regulation applies or not,” Quinn pointed out in June when the issue came out.
Compounding the situation was the fact the township committee was not aware the new regulation even existed, according to township Attorney Philip Morin at the time.