CRANFORD — The governing body last week unanimously approved the appointment of Police Capt. James Wozniak as the township’s next police chief … again.
Wozniak, a 24-year veteran and Cranford police officer who rose through the ranks will officially take the top cop position March 1, succeeding Eric Mason, who spent 11 years as the township’s police chief.
This is the second time Wozniak was appointed as police chief, the first in May 2012 when Mason was expected to retire as police chief and step into the role of township administrator.
Since 2011 Mason has had a tenuous relationship with the township and police force he leads.
In September 2011, after the township abruptly put former administrator Marlena Schmid on paid administrative leave, Mason took over the dual role of police chief and interim administrator. The move followed Tropical Storm Irene which devastated the township and flooded more than 1,000 homes and businesses.
Although the governing body fully expected Mason to retire as chief and take on the administrator role full time, issues surfaced over whether he could immediately move from one position in the municipality to another without compromising his pension. As a result, Mason decided in November 2012 to keep his job as police chief.
This did not sit well with the majority of the police force, who vented their anger and frustration over Mason’s leadership on local blogs, in addition to bemoaning the fact that the well respected Wozniak would not be taking over the helm.
Questions also surfaced over Mason “double dipping” or engaging in the practice of public employees retiring, collecting a pension and being rehired by the same municipality, often the next day. The governing body, though, did not seem to have an issue with that at the time.
Late last week Mayor Andy Kalnins said the decision to appoint Wozniak once again as police chief came after “much consideration” and review of the vetting process that took place in May 2012.
At that time Wozniak, along with fellow officers Lt. Steve Wilde, Lt. Edward Davenport and Capt. Joseph Van Bergan, were all in the running for the coveted police chief position.
“Nothing had really changed since we went through that process. Jim was the best fit then and now,” said the mayor, saying this decision was unanimous which he felt said a lot about how well the township committee was working together.
“We made this decision after much consideration and deliberation,” Kalnins stressed.
According to information LocalSource obtained from the township in December using the Open Public Records Act, the police chief position was paying between $144,840 and $146,880 annually. A previous OPRA by LocalSource earlier in the fall showed police chief salaries in other Union county towns ranged from a low of $128,818 in Clark to a high of $207,188 in Hillside, or an average of $147,022.
LocalSource broke the story Feb. 6 that Mason was retiring as chief after acting Prosecutor Grace Park had quietly appointed the veteran township police chief to head of the John H. Stamler Police Academy in Scotch Plains.
The academy is where police recruits are trained to become police officers, but those attending hail from every county in the state. For example, in December, 85 recruits from four counties graduated from the academy, the largest in two decades.
Park confirmed Mason would be taking over as the new director of the police academy beginning March 1, even though Kalnins said at that time the township had not received official notification from Mason that he would be retiring.
According to the mayor, the township finally received a letter of resignation from Mason, a member of the township police force for 39 years, the last 11 as police chief. Kalnins expressed gratitude for the time Mason served as chief,
“We do appreciate his service. He put his influence into bettering the Cranford Police Department and we do thank him for that,” the mayor said.
Asked if the township was financially prepared to handle the terminal leave pay Mason wracked up over the last 39 years, Kalnins admitted there was not much they could do about the payout that often straps municipalities.
“I guess we have to be,” he said, but added he thought the township would be able to cover it.
Terminal leave pay is accrued unused sick, vacation and compensatory time which public employees receive cash for when they retire, and has been the subject of much controversy at the state level.
According to a state investigation, in 2013, New Jersey property owners paid out $43 million in terminal pay to retiring public employees. Many, they noted, received in excess of $100,000 or more for this unused time. According to Gov. Chris Christie, that is just a fraction of the $825 million taxpayers would have to shell out if every public employee cashed in their terminal pay, or about $250 per property owner.
The New Jersey League of Municipalities has lobbied against terminal leave pay, maintaining, like the governor, that this benefit has to be reined in to protect municipalities and taxpayers from excessive buyouts. However, because more often than not these lucrative benefit arrangements are the result of collective bargaining contracts or individual contracts negotiated by municipal employees, most attempts have failed.
Many towns put the brakes on this spending of taxpayer dollars by enacting local restrictions on how much terminal pay an employee can collect, while others, approximately 80 percent, according to the League of Municipalities, continue to pay out huge sums of money to retiring employees.
In fact, in neighboring Middlesex County, retiring Edison police officers received terminal pay buyouts of anywhere from $55,000 to $292,000 each between 2009 and 2011.
Kalnins said he expected that after working in the police department for 39 years Mason’s terminal leave pay would be high.
“There is not much we can do about that,” the mayor added.
Wozniak was contacted for comment but did not return calls by press time.