UNION, N.J. — Without calling his tenure boring, Ron Manzella is proud that his 17 years as the township’s business administrator were not filled with having to manage countless crises.
“You’re able to control your budget better by not being surprised,” he said in a Jan 9 interview, nine days into his retirement.
Implementing a program a decade and a half ago called CitiStat, a data-tracking and management tool that provides an array of performance indicators, Manzella met biweekly with supervisors from each department to assess things such as the number of emergency calls in various locations, the number of trees cut and the number of roads swept.
“You’re accountable, and because the supervisors do it, representing their department, you get interaction with how you can be more productive and more accountable,” he said.
It was just one of Manzella’s reflections on a career that also included beginning the Union Center revitalization project and twice landing the township of more than 58,000 people on Money magazine’s “Best Places to Live” list — first in 2008 and again in 2018.
“I always believe that the residents, the customer, should be treated at the highest level of respect, and that the offices were friendly and accommodating during our situations, that through the hurricanes we experienced and the loss of power to the town, that the police, fire, and DPW worked in harmony with each other.” Manzella said in an interview on Jan. 8.
“One of the things I wanted to build was teamwork, so that we had good divisions, but we wanted to make it stronger to have different divisions work together to provide the best services to our residents as possible.”
Manzella’s career also included time as a member of the local Board of Education, as director of Youth Services in Essex County in 1985 and later as an administrator at the North Caldwell Penitentiary and director of both county jails in Essex County. Later, he was the county administrator in Essex County.
Donald Travisano replaced Manzella on Jan. 1, having started as assistant township administrator in October, and credits his predecessor with leaving him a financially stable ship with a AA+ bond rating
“It’s a sign that we are financially healthy, that our financial policies are in line with or supersede industry standards,” Travisano said in a Jan. 7 interview. “And it’s a testament to Ron Manzella’s leadership that we are there.”
Deputy Mayor Joseph Florio also lauded Manzella, praising him for a wide range of accomplishments.
“His priority has always been the residents and what was best for the community,” Florio said in a Jan. 3 statement. “The building of an efficient workforce, helping to achieve a AA+ bond rating, negotiating complicated union contracts are just a few of the many accomplishments over the years.
“But one I know he is very proud of is the development and investment in Union Center, which will usher in a new era for our downtown. Redevelopment, done smartly, is with planning and collaboration and consensus and residents and businesses.
“It’s a win-win for the township. You’re bringing in new residents who will be walking the downtown area, who will be patronizing the downtown area, supporting the economic developments in that area. It brings more revenue in that town.”
The Union Center project, the area around the intersection of Morris and Stuyvesant avenues, is one that Manzella feels will last well beyond him.
“The goal is to revitalize Union Center, and we took that by encouraging redevelopment, which is in the first stages of the several different areas,” he said. “That will significantly have an impact on the quality of retail that we will have in the center and put as much foot traffic in the center as possible.”
Florio says he best remembers Manzella as resolute, but always considerate and friendly.
“The business and friendship relationship are one of the things I will remember about Ron,” he said. “He is a true professional and a gentleman.
“As a township official, many times you are faced with some tough decisions. I could always sit down with Ron to get his input. Sometimes these discussions could get a little tense. But the thing I feel is important is at the end of the discussion we would always end in a smile.”
Manzella said he felt the elected officials he worked with truly cared about what was best for Union.
“I found that every member that I worked for, both present and ones who are no longer involved, the unique thing was everyone cared about the community and was willing to support ideas that would move the township forward,” he said. “I’d like to thank everyone who worked for the township that believed in what we were trying to do and to the residents of Union who encouraged and supported the township committee.”