Confusion Reigns Over Mason Switch to Administrator
Interviews to replace retiring CPD chief/interim Town Administrator Eric Mason have been postponed while council members review a new Division of Pensions and Benefits rule that would cost Mason for jumping immediately into the new job.
Cranford Mayor David Robinson says the township cancelled two special committee meetings with candidates for retiring Cranford Police Chief Eric Mason in order to interview them all in one day. But he wouldn't say if the decision had anything to do with new rules that could affect Mason's transition from police chief to full-time township administrator.
Mason, who announced that he would step down as police chief on May 31 after 35 years with the CPD, has been embroiled in controversy since the February 28 meeting in which township council unanimously approved Mason to take over as full-time administrator. Mason has worked as police chief and as interim township administrator since last September, when former administrator Marlena Schmid was placed on involuntary administrative leave. Schmid is no longer employed by the township. No other candidates were interviewed for the job.
But a new wrinkle, which Robinson would not address Monday, involves pension guidelines that could prevent Mason from collecting his full police benefits for jumping directly from the CPD into the role of full-time township administrator.
Deputy Mayor Andis Kalnins, however, did discuss the issue and said the governing body's intention is to continue with the process of finding a new police chief to replace Mason when he retires on May 31.
"Our intention is to continue on the prescribed process," Kalnins said. "If we find out that the latest pension rule changes do not allow this, then we will have to look at all of our options. These particular changes were just announced and, from my understanding, did not follow the regular public hearing process so it is taking some time to get the information and see if and how it affects our situation."
According to the new 2012 pension board rules, an employee who plans to collect pension benefits through the Police and Firemen's Retirement System must have "bona fide severance from employment," which means "a complete termination of the employee's employment relationship with the employer for a period of at least 180 days." Employment, reemployment or "termination of employment with a pre-arranged agreement for reemployment" does not constitute a "bona fide severance," according to the pension board.
If he takes over the position of township administrator immediately following his May 31 retirement as planned, he will not have the "bona fide severance from employment" that the state pension board requires.
Kalnins would not discuss any specific scenarios involving Mason's transition to township administrator. Mason, who earns nearly $142,000 as police chief, could retire at approximately 70 percent of that salary, plus benefits. The exact salary that Mason will earn as township administrator has not 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. In February, Robinson said Mason would collect his full police pension, his salary as township administrator and have his medical benefits also be paid for by the township. Mason's pensions would come from two different sources: the Police and Fire Retirement System and the Public Employees Retirement System, which funds municipal employees.
"As I stated before, we are still in the process of finding out exactly what the pension board rule changes are and if they affect our current situation," Kalnins said. "We did have the special meeting on Tuesday to discuss the process. The actual interviews have been rescheduled. This would give us some more time to get information and then hopefully schedule the interviews all for one day, which was our original intent."
Mason did not return calls for comment and has not commented on the contentious debate since his career plans were announced.
Although he does not have a degree in any field related to finance or administration, Mason has received praise after he took over the duties of 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 the acting administrator, Mason has worked with FEMA as well as state and county governments to help secure funding for the flood-ravaged township.
This is hardly the first controversy surrounding Mason's appointment as full-time administrator. Less than one day after the announcement was made on Feb. 28, a YouTube video surfaced that included audio from a phone call between the police chief and his son Christopher. 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 plays in the background. According to the township attorney, the call was made shortly after Mason was named Police Chief in 2003, and included him telling his son, "It was a good day. I didn't have to kill any white people." YouTube officials pulled the video shortly after it was posted.
In March, Mason said the contents of the phone call do not reflect his performance as the police chief or the interim township administrator. The chief also said he "regrets" if anyone was offended by the comments.
"The comments depicted in a personal telephone conversation between me and my son over eight years ago are not indicative of the career I have had or the person that I am," Mason said. "I regret if anyone was offended and I am disappointed that someone would try to exploit a personal conversation from over eight years ago for their personal gain."
Mason said the call was private and he believes the peope responsible for releasing the tape were attempting to divide the township and embarrass him.