One day after Cranford Police Chief Eric Mason announced his plans to retire from the Police Department to become the fulltime township administrator, a video has surfaced that includes audio from an eight-year-old phone call with his son in which Mason jokes that his day was going well because he "didn't have to kill any white people."
The video, placed on Youtube by someone calling himself or herself GazeeboBricks, features photos of Mason as audio from the call between him and his son Christopher plays in the background. According to the township attorney, the call was made shortly after Mason was named Police Chief in 2003. Mason is the township's first African American chief.
As the controversy erupted, Mason was unavailable for comment. His secretary, Jennifer Burns, said Mason is out of the country on a week-long vacation. GazeeboBricks was contacted by Patch through his YouTube account, but has not responded to requests for comment and additional information.
Mayor David Robinson said he spoke to Mason just before he left for vacation. When they spoke, the chief alerted the mayor to the release of the video.
"He indicated that the (recorded phone call) was from years ago and it was a private conversation with his son about family matters," Robinson said. "The Township Commitee at the time determined that it didn't affect his ability to be the police chief, so a retread of it in 2012 doesn't affect his ability to be the township administrator."
Deputy Mayor Andis Kalnins said he knew nothing about the video until it was brought to his attention Thursday.
"What I based the decision (to appoint Mason as township administrator) on was his eight years of exemplary service as police chief and the last six months of service as the acting administrator, and doing a very good job at that," Kalnins said.
Following the Feb. 28 Township Committee meeting, during which Robinson announced that Mason would be taking on the township administrator job, the mayor said members of the governing body "spent a fair amount of time deliberating this appointment." The decision to appoint Mason was unanimous among members of the governing body.
In looking to fill the position, the mayor said officials also contacted the League of Municipalities to discuss "best practices" and obtain guidance. One piece of advice from the League indicated that "the best candidate is the person the governing body feels most comfortable with," Robinson said.
"Chief Mason has earned that right to be considered township administrator," Robinson said Tuesday.
Township Attorney Phil Morin said he has not spoken to any of the members of the governing body regarding Mason's comments in the video, but he believed the committee members should discuss it. Morin was appointed township attorney in January. Morin spoke favorably of the chief's "temperament, demeanor and management style."
While Kalnins and Robinson did not dismiss the remarks made by the police chief in the video, they each expressed their concern about the apparent security breach within the police department that led to the release of the recorded phone call. It is not known whether the recording was obtained recently, or if someone copied it when it was made and waited until Mason's retirement annoucement before releasing it embarrass the outgoing chief.
"I think a larger concern is who stole this information," Robinson said. "Clearly, there is somebody out there who has a vendetta against Eric Mason."
Daniel Aschenbach, who has known Mason for much of his police career and was Cranford mayor when Mason was appointed police chief and again when he was made the acting township administrator, stands by him.
"This was maybe eight years ago, at the time Chief Mason was appointed chief. It was a rumor referenced online often," according to former Mayor Daniel Aschenbach, "It was a private conversation between father and son on the stress of being Cranford's first black police chief. He apologized then to Township Committee members individually. I believe it was a crude reference in private to the worst imaginable thing. Cranford is a progressive community and will understand [that is was not said in a] mean context. I believe Chief Mason has treated all individuals in an inclusive and open way. Tough jobs take tough skin."
The video, depicting a screen shot of the township's website behind an audio recording of a phone call between Mason and his son Christopher was posted on YouTube just hours after Tuesday's Township Committee meeting. The video also appeared on Cranford Talk, a local community forum, where detractors also commented on the chief's qualifications, as well as the context of the phone call that can be heard on the recording.
While it is not known who obtained the recording of the phone call from the police department, or who made the YouTube video, it appears to reflect a joke between a father and son meant to diffuse a tense situation in the wake of Mason's appointment as the first African American police chief in a town that, according to the 2000 census, was 93 percent caucasian.
The following exchange is transcribed from the from the call. To hear the full five-minute conversation, click on the link to the YouTube video.
Christopher (Approximately one minute into the call):"How are things going?"
Mason: "So far, so good....didn't have to kill any white people." (Laughter)
Christopher: "Anyone try to backstab you or anything?"
Mason: "Yeah, that's an everyday occurance...there's a few people grumbling, but they'll get over it."
Mason goes on to say that he had to make some personnel moves recently. The discussion then briefly switches to talk about local sports.
Christopher (Approximately 4 minutes into the call): "Well, I was just calling to see how everything was."
Mason: "So far, so good."
Christopher: "Are you enjoying it?"
Mason: "Yea....(inaudible) Yeah man, I'm the H.N.I.C. [Head N**** In Charge], man."
Robinson announced during Wednesday's township committee meeting that Mason had accepted the appointment as fulltime township administrator and the criticism was swift. In a Patch poll that accompanied the announcement of Mason's plan to retire and take on the new post, 56 percent of voters said they were "not at all happy" with the news, while 36 supported the decision. Comments on the story included a rant on "double-dipping" by municipal employees and concerns about municipal salaries. But the vitriol against Mason's hire dominated the discussion by residents, who questioned whether he had sufficient credentials or experience to handle the job on a permanent basis.
Some officials believe that the release of the audio tape is an attempt to sabotauge his acscension to the new post.
Mason joined the Cranford Police Department in 1977 at the age of 20. He rose through the ranks and was named captain in 1998. He was named chief in July of 2003, replacing Harry Wilde. In 2010, Mason was named president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. Mason's retirement will go into effect on May 31 and he will be credited with 35 years of service. As part of his pension, he will be paid 70 percent of his last salary as police chief, while also earning the salary he will earn as the township administrator. His pension also covers his medical expenses. The exact salary that Mason will earn as township administrator hasn't been made available, but a salary ordinance approved by the Township Committee on Nov. 14, 2011 sets the salary for a township administrator between $106,390 and $148,948. The same ordinance sets his salary as police chief between $112,497 and $142,000.
This fall, Mason took over as interim township administrator when former administrator Marlena Schmid was placed on administrative leave in early September of 2011. This is not the first time a police chief has stepped into the role of township administrator. In 1999, former Police Chief Harry Wilde served in the position following the resignation of John Laezza. Wilde served as the administrator until Schmid was hired.
Mason not only handled his duties as police chief but as acting township administrator as residents struggled to begin rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Irene. Flooding from the storm resulted in the evacuation of town hall and several municipal departments, some of which remain housed in trailers behind the municipal building. As acting administrator, Mason has worked with FEMA as well as state and county governments to help secure funding for the flood-ravaged township.