CRANFORD — Township Police Chief Eric Mason is in hot water with the local police union after allegedly attempting to intimidate a member of the force into recanting an email that Mason did not like.
The complaint, filed with the New Jersey Public Employment Relations Commission, puts further credence to rumors that have circulated the last several years of a deep divide between the police force and Mason.
Mayor Tom Hannen said the complaint is being looked into by the township’s legal advisors, declining to comment one way or another on the issue because it involved a personnel matter. However, he did say the township is hoping to resolve the matter locally.
Until the NJPERC makes its decision on whether the issue meets the law, the complaint cannot move forward. Once it does, the commission will hold a hearing where both parties can plead their case. But the PBA believes their case does have merit and meets the law.
In fact, on Jan. 11 the Police Benevolent Association Local 52 was upset enough over the incident that occurred Nov. 20 to file the unfair labor practice complaint against Mason, charging the township’s top cop with trying to intimidate a police sergeant, deprive him of his First Amendment free speech rights and illegally interfering in protected union activity.
According to the complaint, which LocalSource obtained, Police Sgt. Anthony Dobbins was confronted by Mason about an email he wrote to PBA members Nov. 16 involving the morale of the department.
According to Donald B. Ross of the Westfield legal firm Lindabury, McCormick, Estabrook & Cooper, Dobbins sent the email to fellow PBA members because he was concerned about the direction in which the union was heading.
The email, sent to all PBA members, including Mason, who is also a member of the PBA, was merely an effort “to motivate members and its leadership to change direction and become more involved in traditions.”
“With morale at an all time low in our department I think we need to work especially hard in the union to acknowledge great works and share in social times as the holiday seasons are upon us,” Dobbins said in the email to PBA members.
Ross said Mason’s reaction to hearing about the email and subsequent confrontation with Dobbins on Nov. 20 constituted “a direct and undeniable violation” of Dobbins rights as a PBA member under state statute.
According to the complaint, on Nov. 20 Dobbins was told by Capt. Joseph Van Bergen that after a staff meeting Mason wanted to see him. At the staff meeting, Dobbins reported that the police chief was “confrontational in tone at this meeting and his demeanor included yelling repeatedly to another officer to shut up despite lack of provocation.”
Following the meeting, the complaint noted, Dobbins was escorted to the police chief’s office where Mason informed him that he knew about the email. He fired questions at Dobbins’ about morale in the department but refused to allow the sergeant to answer.
“Within just a few moments Mr. Dobbins felt threatened and backed into a corner,” the attorney for the PBA explained in the complaint, adding that Mason accused Dobbins of “talking out of both sides of his mouth.”
The complaint also alleged the police chief tried to force the police sergeant to write another email recanting his original email.
The attorney for the PBA maintained in the complaint that Dobbins and the PBA believe the chief’s actions were motivated by “anti-union animus and intended to have a chilling effect of Mr. Dobbins’ union rights and first amendment rights.”
The PBA and Dobbins also charged Mason with “interfering illegally in protected union activity.”
Ross said Dobbins felt threatened and intimidated as a union member, especially when the police chief asked in “an agitated state” if he was starting a weekly column.
Dobbins, the attorney said, explained that he was not planning any further emails but had every right to freely express his thoughts in a private PBA email.
“The actions of Chief Mason were willfully and deliberately designed to deprive Mr. Dobbins of his rights guaranteed under the act,” the complaint said.
The PBA asked the commission to find that Mason violated the law and issue a requirement that the police chief “cease and desist from further violations.”
This is not the first time the issue of morale problems within the police department under Mason’s charge surfaced.
Although rumors of continued unrest have been posted on the Cranford Talk website since last year, in the fall the matter came out into the open when Dobbins’ father, Gerald Dobbins, a well respected member of the community for his voluntarism, raised the issue at a public meeting.
Dobbins questioned the governing body about the police chief taking on the administrator position while he was also the police chief, pointing out there were morale problems in the department.
Mason held the duel role of police chief and interim administrator since September 2011 when former township administrator Marlena Schmid was put on administrative leave by the Township Committee and eventually let go the end of the year.
Although he announced that he would be retiring as police chief May 31 and step into the administrator position full-time, that was put on hold pending a decision from the state department of treasury on pension guidelines.
The delay had to do with a new law that took effect in March 2012, which put into question whether Mason could retire as chief and immediately assume the administrator position.
The governing body and Mason expected the New Jersey State Treasury Department to interpret this new law, which said employees of a municipality had to wait 180 days before assuming another position in the same municipality.
At issue was whether the law even applied to Mason’s case because the governing body officially voted to hire him Feb. 28 and the new law did not become effective until March 9.
Mason decided to hold back until he received a waver from the treasury department, despite a clear indication this would not be forthcoming.
In fact, in June, when LocalSource spoke with Treasury Department spokesperson Bill Quinn, he made it very clear where the state stood on this particular issue.
“Regulations are up for interpretation,” Quinn said, adding the state would provide Mason and the township with an interpretation of a regulation, “but we would never issue a waiver on something like that.”
At one point it appeared Mason might just accept the interpretation the township attorney provided, which was that the law did not apply to him, but that failed to materialize. Meanwhile the governing body continued to interview police chief candidates, concentrating on four from within the Cranford police department, selecting Lt. James Wozniak, a 25 year-veteran officer with a stellar record on the police force.
Mason threw in another hook when he told township elected officials he wanted an employee contract before he would officially put his papers in to the state to retire as police chief. That did not set well with some members of the committee.
According to several governing body members the township was not about to start giving contracts out when that had never been the policy before.
In late November Mason abruptly tendered his resignation as interim administrator, saying he would continue to do the job until the end of the year but would be returning to his position as police chief full-time.
This left the township without an administrator. It also left Wozniak out in the cold.
According to governing body and police department sources, Mason was not at all pleased that the township committee did not go along with his choice of Capt. Joseph Van Bergen as police chief, selecting Wozniak instead.
Adding fuel to the fire among the police force and governing body members alike was Mason’s promotion of Van Bergen to head of administrative operations, along with moving Lt. Edward Davenport to another administrative position. Both advancements were done without notifying or consulting the Township Committee in any way.
According to one member of the governing body, this came as a complete surprise, especially since the police chief is a department head and expected to keep the governing body informed of changes within the department.
Adding yet another dimension to the lack of support for Mason was Hannen’s decision not to appoint the police chief as Cranford’s Emergency Management Coordinator, a position he has held every year since being named police chief ten years ago.
Last week Hannen confirmed that he appointed Mason and Fire Chief Lenny Dolan as Deputy Emergency Management Coordinators, but did not name anyone to the Emergency Management Coordinator position yet. Not being reappointed to the deputy coordinator position was Van Bergen.
When asked why he did not appoint Mason to this top emergency leadership spot again, Hannen said state police quidelines require the coordinator live in town and Mason lives in Scotch Plains.
“Just following the rules,” the mayor said last week, noting he will be appointing someone to this critical position in the next few weeks. And despite rumors circulating, he would not confirm that his choice for the coordinator position could be Wozniak.