Cliff Keen on Broad Street last June. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)


hot topic red bank njAt its first working session of 2023, the Red Bank council fired public utilities director Cliff Keen Wednesday night.

Unmentioned at the meeting: he was replaced on an interim basis, at a cost of $16,500 per month, by Gary Watson Sr., whom Keen succeeded in 2016.

Gary Watson Sr. seen driving a borough snowplow in 2014. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)

No reason for Keen’s ouster was given, and a separation agreement with him was not listed on the council’s agenda. Borough Attorney Dan Antonelli told the audience the pact was a late addition because it had only been finalized that afternoon.

When it came up, the council adopted it without a word of discussion.

The 90-day “consulting agreement” with Watson also was not listed on the agenda, and adopted without any mention of Watson’s name or the contact’s terms.

Interim borough administrator Darren McConnell told redbankgreen afterward that it calls for Watson to be paid $16,500 per month.

Voting in favor were councilpersons Ed Zipprich, Michael Ballard, John Jackson and Jacqueline Sturdivant. Councilpersons Angela Mirandi and Kate Triggiano were absent.

McConnell said Watson was selected on the basis of a non-fair and open proposal Watson submitted. He said he did not know who had invited Watson to submit the proposal.

Sources who asked not to be identified told redbankgreen that Keen had been “blindsided” by news of his firing just hours before the January 4 reorganization meeting, and that the separation agreement was worded as a resignation, enabling him to collect severance.

Asked for comment, Keen told redbankgreen via text:

It was an absolute pleasure to work for the Borough of Red Bank for the last 7 years. The staff is second to none, the volunteers are phenomenal, and the passion of the residents is inspiring. Though I didn’t plan on leaving so soon, I have nothing but good things to say about this amazing municipality. I wish everyone the best of luck in the future and I am excited to see the changes that are coming and the ways this municipality will continue to grow and improve under a new form of government.

He said his employment would continue until January 31 “to make sure there is a transition.”

Watson could not immediately be reached for comment.

An Ocean County resident, Keen was hired by the borough in December, 2015 to succeed Watson, who retired at the time. Since Keen’s arrival, the public works staffing has been reduced to 27 workers, down from 40, as the borough shifted to private trash hauling, from municipal collections.

Keen played leading roles in a number of capital projects, including the makeovers of English Plaza and the White Street parking lot; the hurried implementation of Broadwalk early in the COVID-19 pandemic; and the reconstruction of Broad Street completed last July.

This is the second time Watson, a borough native now living in South Carolina, has come out of retirement. After serving 27 years in the police department, he retired in 1998 as captain, and returned five years later as deputy borough administrator and head of the utilities operation.

Keen holds a water systems operator’s license, which has satisfied New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection regulations that the borough water utility have such a license holder. Though Watson does not hold a water license, McConnell said that requirement will now be fulfilled by a longstanding agreement with another license holder, Tom Branch.

If you value the news coverage provided by redbankgreen, please become a financial supporter for as little as $1 per month. Click here to set your own level of monthly or annual contribution.