By JOHN T. WARD
With a second vacancy in a key position looming, Red Bank’s search for a borough administrator has stalled without explanation, say two council members.
And the current, interim holder of the position, police Chief Darren McConnell, tells redbankgreen” that there has been no recent movement” toward a replacement.
Mayor Pasquale Menna, however, disagrees, and says the local government is operating “in stellar fashion” under McConnell.
According to councilmen Michael Ballard and Ed Zipprich, there’s been radio silence around the effort to fill the top unelected post for the past two months. The administrator steers the daily operations of the municipality.
After Ziad Shehady announced his resignation in April, the council hired the executive search firm Canning Group to solicit résumés and suggest candidates, for a fee of $15,000. The firm recommended eight in late May, according to Ballard.
A month later, five council members interviewed four candidates, with two chosen for second interviews, he said. But the next round, scheduled for the week of July 5, was cancelled, Ballard told redbankgreen via email earlier this week..
Since the cancellation, “I have not been included in any discussions concerning the BA search,” Ballard said, and his “multiple requests to move the search forward have not been successful.”
“The Administrator search has stalled for reasons completely unknown to me,” he said.
Zipprich also said that after the June 29 interviews, the process “stalled.”
“I expressed concern to the Chief/Administrator that the Borough would be missing out on the identified candidates and was told that they were still available,” he said. “Nothing further came of it.”
McConnell confirmed last week that Canning had completed, and been paid for, two-thirds of the phased work under its contract, which called for the firm to winnow the applicant pool down to 10 candidates for an “interview round” and conduct its own interviews to produce “1-3 or more candidates” for borough consideration.
But in response to other questions, McConnell said: “I think it would be more appropriate for the Mayor to respond… as I have not been involved in the interview process at all.”
Menna told redbankgreen late Friday that the current situation is not problematic.
“Right now, the system is not broken,” he said. “In fact, I think the borough is operating in stellar fashion” in McConnell’s hands.
Menna confirmed that Canning had recommended four candidates, but “they were not, in my opinion, the right fit. Just because four come along doesn’t mean you have to walk down the bridal aisle.”
He said a number of towns, including Tinton Falls and Eatontown, are also operating with interim administrators, in part because of a “dearth” of people qualified for the job.
Additionally, in Red Bank, Menna said, “you have to have armor plating to enter the council chamber in that position” due to what he said is the highest level of incivility he’s seen in 30 years of municipal service.
While Ballard and Zipprich may disagree, Menna said the council majority has decided to stick with the status quo “while we see what comes our way” in terms of job candidates.
Zipprich and Ballard have frequently been at odds over the past year with their colleagues on the all-Democratic council – Kathy Horgan, Kate Triggiano, Hazim Yassin and Erik Yngstrom. None responded to redbankgreen requests for comment on the search.
The alleged stall-out comes as the borough faces the departure on September 30 of Chief Financial Officer Peter O’Reilly, who announced his resignation August 31, after just two and half years in the job. He has not publicly commented on his decision to leave.
O’Reilly had replaced Eugenia Poulos, who was fired after a closed-door, hastily-called council meeting on December 31, 2018, just hours before she would have been eligible for job tenure.
After a closed-door council meeting September 1, Ballard declined to approve O’Reilly’s resignation, telling his colleagues, “we’re losing a good man, for the wrong reasons, and it’s another embarrassment for this council to lose more people of a great skill set.”
Ballard has previously pressed the council to hire an assistant CFO, reminding colleagues at their August 4 session that the position has been vacant “since day one” of O’Reilly’s tenure, which began in May, 2019.
Now, the administration may find slim pickings for both the administrator and CFO positions, said Ray Codey, who is both the borough administrator in Madison and president of the New Jersey Municipal Management Association, an organization of 280 people who hold similar positions around the Garden State.
“It’s difficult to find professional Administrators and CFOs in New Jersey,” Codey told redbankgreen by email last week. “And that search process is further compromised when a town experiences regular turnover in key positions or the political landscape discourages potential applicants from competing for a position.”
Recent changes to the Public Employee Retirement System which require new new managers to enroll in a defined contribution plan “has also made the profession less desirable for younger candidates,” Codey said.
Menna said he hoped the borough would be able to fill the CFO job quickly. In the interim, the council has approved Westfield CPA firm Suplee Clooney & Company to manage borough finances.
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