By JOHN T. WARD
The Red Bank council ended its 2017 session in acrimony Wednesday night as Republicans accused Democrats of politicizing the replacement of Stanley Sickels as borough administrator.
After 38 years as a borough employee, the last 21 in the town’s top job, Sickels attended his final council session, and was applauded and embraced by colleagues after the dust had settled.
But the preceding 41 minutes were marked by frequent interruptions and sharp words, most of them directed by Republican Councilman Mark Taylor at the three Democrats on the dais. He was joined in his critique by Councilwoman Linda Schwabenbauer, who was wrapping up her three-year term after losing to incoming councilmember Michael Ballard, a Democrat.
The issue: that the town’s most important job would be vacant beginning January 1, despite Schwabenbauer’s efforts, beginning in June, to ensure someone was hired by December 1, so Sickels could help train his replacement.
“This thing with the administrator is not on the level,” Taylor said. “I don’t know who’s running the borough in January.”
Council President Kathy Horgan, sitting in for absent Mayor Pasquale Menna, responded, “the consultant is. We have a consultant in place.”
In October, the council authorized the hiring of Government Strategy Group for three months, concluding January 15, to conduct “a comprehensive review of management services” at borough hall. The resolution of the appointment makes no mention of administrative duties being handled by GSG.
Taylor noted that the consultant would be gone in January, and questioned whether a consultant had the legal authority to step into the job.
Horgan later said that the Democrats, “in conjunction with our consultant,” would appoint an acting administrator at the annual reorganization meeting, scheduled for 3 p.m. at borough hall. She did not identify who would get the appointment.
Taylor said that, as head of the personnel committee, on which he and Horgan sat, Schwabenbauer had winnowed nearly 40 applicants down to 10, at least seven of whom were deemed worthy of interviews by all members of the council.
But the Democrats, he said, “became ‘unavailable’ suddenly, yet you had time for education and technology [committee] meetings instead of interviewing for the most important role in the borough. You guys just dropped off the map.”
His anger becoming increasingly evident, Taylor said he was “disgusted” by what he termed politicization of the hiring.
“It’s absurd to me… you’re on the committee, Kathy. You’re on the freaking committee, and you didn’t even sit in these interviews,” he said. “It’s a disgrace, a total disgrace.”
Horgan responded that she “did sit in on some of the interviews.” Councilman Ed Zipprich, who heads the borough Democratic organization, said he had been invited to only two interviews, a claim that Schwabenbauer disputed.
“You were invited to three more and canceled that night,” she said, a point Zipprich disputed.
“I beg to differ, madam,” he said. He also said he wanted to see all the résumés received, which he said totaled 69, but that Schwabenbauer had “screened them herself.”
Taylor replied that all had been posted to secure Dropbox and Google Docs accounts that were accessible to all council members.
In a series of emails copied to redbankgreen late Wednesday night as evidence of her efforts to involve the Democrats, Schwabenbauer called Zipprich’s claim of having been excluded “baloney.”
Councilman Mike Whelan, also a Republican, said Zipprich was claiming, not for the first time, to have been excluded from council business in spite of a trail of emails showing otherwise.
“Throughout the year you said RiverCenter was excluded” from discussions about parking, “and yet you are the RiverCenter liaison. How many times can you just throw out the excuse that you weren’t included?”
Horgan said she had interviewed “several” of the administrator candidates and found that “they were not where we wanted them to be. You may not agree with me, Mark, and I respect you opinion, but we are where we are now.”
Taylor said the Republicans “have no idea who that person is” who will be appointed as acting administrator.
“Talk about being excluded. This is an absolute disgrace,” he said. “It’s incompetence at best and dereliction of duty at worst.”
“I think we want to find the right person, and we have not found the right person in the applications we received,” Horgan said.
Taylor said it was time for Red Bank to get away from the party-based conflict by changing to a system of nonpartisan elections.
“We can’t possibly govern together if we can’t even have a conversation,” he said. “I think we’re at an absolute impasse in Red Bank. It’s absolutely stupid.”
Afterward, Whelan told redbankgreen that he and Taylor would work “aggressively” to bring about a change to non-partisan government. The first-term pair were elected together in 2015 and face re-election in 2018, when the mayoralty is also up for grabs.