CRANFORD – Police Chief Eric Mason will be retiring to take over as head of the John H .Stamler Police Academy in March.
Yesterday acting Prosecutor Grace Park confirmed she appointed Mason as director of the academy, which is under the authority of the prosecutor’s office in cooperation with the Union County Police Chiefs Association.
According to Mark Spivey, public information officer for the Prosecutor’s Office, Park expected to make the announcement shortly before Mason took over as director in March.
The academy, located in Scotch Plains, is where recruits are trained to become police officers, but those attending hail from counties all over the state. In December, for example, 85 recruits from four counties graduated from the academy, the second largest class in two decades.
Of that number, 26 stayed in the county, joining the sheriffs department and police forces in Union, Plainfield, Rahway, Westfield, Mountainside and at Kean University.
Late on Thursday, Jan. 30, Cranford Mayor Andy Kalnins confirmed that while the township had not received official notice about Mason retiring as chief, he had heard it unofficially.
“I don’t have an official letter yet but we were advised that Eric had been appointed as the police academy director and will be retiring,” the mayor said in an interview with LocalSource.
Exactly who will be appointed as the township’s next police chief, though, is up in the air, according to Kalnins.
“We’re going to address this at our Feb. 10 meeting,” he explained, noting there will be “a full vetting process” before a candidate for the top cop position is selected.
The mayor said the township will be looking at the same four candidates up for the position in May 2012 when Mason planned to retire and take over as township administrator. Those candidates included Lt. James Wozniak, Lt. Stephen Wilde, Lt. Edward Davenport and Capt. Joseph Van Bergen.
The mayor did not address the fact that in September 2012 Wozniak had been selected as the next police chief by the Democrat controlled governing body. That decision was a unanimous one after all four candidates underwent a full vetting process.
Kalnins explained that since the same four candidates were still eligible for the police chief position, he felt the township had to go through the vetting process again because so much time had passed since that decision had been made.
“Actually the only two remaining members of the committee that were involved in that process are myself and Lisa Adubato,” the mayor said, pointing out that although in 2012 the governing body was unanimous in the decision to appoint Wozniak, the fact three new members had taken seats on the committee required starting from square one.
“I think that is the fair way to approach this,” Kalnins added.
According to sources, in 2012 when Wozniak, a member of the Cranford Police force for 25 years, was selected as the next police chief, the decision was not a difficult one. One source involved in the selection process said Wozniak, married and the father of three sons “was the best fit.”
Whether that proves true in this vetting process remains to be seen, but some sources indicated that since political control shifted from Democrat to Republican since 2012, that could weigh heavily in the decision making process. Kalnins strongly denied this would affect the vetting process.
“This is about selecting the best candidate for the position of police chief, and every member of the township committee will be committed to doing that,” the mayor said.
Since 2011 Mason has had a tenuous relationship with the township and police force he leads. Controversy has surrounded his role in the municipality because of the shifting of his duties. Coupled with that were rumblings of descent among the 43-member police force.
Mason assumed the duel role of police chief and administrator in September 2011 after former township administrator Marlena Schmid was put on paid administrative leave. This move followed Tropical Storm Irene which devastated the township and flooded more than 1,000 homes and businesses.
Mason, with 35 years in the police department, rose within the ranks to take the top cop position after former chief Harry Wilde retired.
Although questions surfaced about Mason “double dipping,” or engaging in the legal practice of public employees retiring and then collecting a pension and being rehired by the same municipality, often the next day, the governing body did not seem to have a problem with this at all.
Although he fully expected to collect a sizable pension from the state along with a six-figure salary as administrator, a glitch involving a newly enacted state law threw a wrench in the process.
When Mason heard he may not be able to collect his pension due to a new state law preventing former public employees from taking a position in the same municipality for 180 days, everything was put on hold until things could be clarified.
Getting an answer in writing from the state, though, proved to be difficult, if not impossible, and in November 2012 Mason resigned as interim administrator, effective the end of that year.
In January 2013 Mason returned to being police chief full time and the township hired Joe Hartnett as acting administrator until a permanent replacement could be found.
When Mason retires from his police chief position in Cranford, he will begin collecting his pension while working as the head of the police academy.