CRANFORD — Four months after being appointed permanently as township administrator, Joe Harnett abruptly resigned last week, leaving both elected officials and employees alike stunned.
Late last week Democrat Mayor Tom Hannen, who strongly supported Hartnett taking the position permanently, was closed mouthed about what transpired to elicit such a move by the administrator. He did, however, acknowledge the Township Committee received a resignation letter from Hartnett earlier in the week, effective Sept. 30.
“I can’t discuss this because it is a personnel issue,” the mayor said, adding that he expected to meet with Hartnett Tuesday when he returned from vacation. He also said the governing body called a special meeting Tuesday night in order to discuss the matter in closed session.
“Obviously I don’t know what will come of this meeting but we will be discussing the matter,” Hannen said. Despite refusing to discuss the reasons behind the administrator’s resignation, the mayor had nothing but high praise for Hartnett.
“Joe has been a fantastic administrator. He has helped us get a lot accomplished over the last eight months and we are very grateful for the strides we have made,” Hannen said.
Republican Township Commissioner Andy Kalnins was more forthcoming, hinting the administrator’s resignation might have had something to do with Hartnett not being able to “do what he needed to in order to bring the township back where it should be.”
“Initially I was not in favor of Joe taking the position permanently but he has done an outstanding job and the employees absolutely respect and admire him,” Kalnins said.
Kalnins said he has been very happy with how Hartnett has stepped into the role of administrator, hinting that the fact the township did not move in the direction of changing the form of government, an issue that came up last year again, could be at behind Harnett’s resignation. Recently when the governing body voted on the matter, Hannen was the deciding vote in dismissing such a move.
Tuesday Morning, after requesting an interview with the administrator, who earns $151,927 a year without health benefits according to his contract with the township, Hartnett sent a statement to LocalSource explaining why he was leaving. It was immediately apparent that changing the form of government was at the bottom of his resignation and that he felt very strongly about the issue.
“Many rumors appear to be circulating in the community regarding the letter of resignation I have submitted to the Township Committee. I want to make it absolutely clear that neither Mayor Hannen nor any member of the Township Committee has ever asked me to do anything illegal, unethical or improper. Anything the mayor or committee members have asked of me is well within their rights under their authority in the form of government Cranford operates under.”
“Having said that, it has become increasingly clear over the past several months that we have philosophical differences over how the township should be managed and that, in my opinion, these differences could not be resolved under this form of government,” Hartnett said in his statement, adding that he would do everything he could to ensure a smooth transition.
“I intend to leave the township in much better shape than I found it and headed in the right direction,” the township administrator said, adding that he encouraged the citizens of Cranford to pursue changing the form of government to one better suited to “effectively and efficiently managing an organization of this size, in this day and age.”
Employees, while usually extremely hesitant to go on the record with comments about elected officials or an administrator, did not hold back how they felt in this instance. In fact, many had no qualms about their names being used in a news story on the issue. And although some department heads and employees did not want their names used, every employee that LocalSource spoke with last week had nothing but high praise for Hartnett and wanted their comments included in this article.
Construction Official Rich Belluscio, a longtime employee and department head, praised the administrator for being “a true professional and asset to the township.”
“There has been quite a change here and it is all due to Joe,” added Belluscio.
Hartnett’s Executive Secretary said Tuesday she was very surprised when she found out Hartnett resigned, pointing out what a pleasure it was having him as her boss.
“He is a consummate professional, extremely intelligent and knowledgeable about municipal government and brought a wealth of experience with him when he came aboard,” Burns said.
Other employees also did not hesitate to express how they felt about the man they said had become a mentor to them. Jen Kobliska, Registrar of Vital Statistics was one of them.
“He was doing such a great job, so responsive when I called or had a problem,” she said, adding that she felt that Hartnett had “become a mentor to me.”
Heather Capone, deputy township clerk, admitted she was very shocked when she heard the news, noting that the township administrator “was such a pleasure to work with.” She also pointed out that “he made sure things got done.”
One department head confessed that their heart sank when they heard Hartnett resigned.
“Look, things around here were falling apart. We had no real leadership before Joe came and he brought stability back to this municipality. I don’t know what happened but it is not like him to just up and resign,” the department head said. Others seemed to know more about what precipitated the resignation.
“I heard he was told when he was hired permanently that he could do what it took to get things back on track and then certain members of the township committee pulled the reigns in on him,” said the employee.
A department head wary of repercussions felt that if Hartnett went, the township would be plunged back into instability and that was deeply concerning.
“We were all just starting to feel that someone had control of things here and now, we are back to square one,” he said, adding “I don’t know what happened but someone needs to get Joe to stay. We have come further in eight months than we did in 12 years with Marlena Schmid.”
Hartnett, who actually held the position of interim administrator from January until early April, has been lauded in recent months by governing body members, department heads and employees for his ability to elicit changes that were needed in the municipal building. His appointment came after nearly a year of speculation over who would be appointed to the position that Police Chief Eric Mason assumed in September 2011, immediately following Cranford being devastated by Hurricane Irene. Mason assumed the role after the governing body placed then administrator Marlena Schmid on administrative leave just days after the storm. Schmid later was let go at the end of December with no public explanation by the officials for her being put on administrative leave.
Mason served a duel role of police chief and administrator for more than a year, but when it became apparent that he would be retiring as police chief and taking on the administrator position permanently, other issues threatened his appointment. The police chief specifically was unhappy that he could not get confirmation from the state that he would be able to “double dip,” or receive his police pension and immediately assume the administrator position in the same municipality.
By the end of 2012 Mason announced he would not be taking the administrator position and with a few weeks Hartnett was announced as interim administrator.