Cranbury police chief continues duties as interim OEM coordinator

After seeking clarification from county and state officials, Mayor Matt Scott will continue with Chief of Police Rickey Varga as Cranbury’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) coordinator, until Varga retires on Sept. 30.

Varga is to be named interim OEM coordinator before his retirement. After he retires, Lt. Michael Owens, who will become Cranbury’s next police chief, carries forward the interim OEM coordinator duties, as the New Jersey state legislature decides on legislation allowing for the appointment of nonresidential municipal OEM coordinators.

There are two identical bills before the state legislature for the 2020-21 session: Assembly Bill (A1057) and Senate Bill (S551). A1057 is still in the Assembly Homeland Security and State Preparedness Committee and S551 is set for a second reading in the Senate.

Both bills allow a municipality (population under 5,000) to appoint a nonresident as its municipal emergency management coordinator if a qualified resident cannot be recruited. The appointee is required to be a resident of the applicable county, according to A1057 and S551 documents.

The current law requires that the OEM coordinator be a municipal resident unless the municipality is in a shared service agreement.

“While we were figuring out who to appoint, Township Administrator Denise Marabello was working with Middlesex County and state officials to clarify what we needed to do to fill the position and what the requirements were,” Scott said. “We also tried to find out if there was any way that we could continue to use our police chief as OEM coordinator. The legislature is looking at a bill that would wave residency requirements for OEM coordinators. In light of that fact, anyone qualified who we wanted to appoint as OEM coordinator is OK with them.”

Officials also relayed to Cranbury that if the decision was to have the police chief serve as interim OEM coordinator until the legislature passes the bill, that would also be fine with them.

“Chief Varga has handled the position well. Lt. Michael Owens, who will be the upcoming police chief, we are going to place him as our interim OEM coordinator and leave it at that for now,” Scott said. “I’m glad the state and the county agreed. I think Lt. Owens, soon to be Chief Owens, will do fine in the role and it is a non-issue.”

Scott is scheduled to make the official announcement at the Cranbury’s Township Committee meeting on Sept. 14.

“County and state officials told Denise (Marabello) a couple things. Number one, that Susan Goetz would be highly qualified because the actual requirements are just that have experience with local government, EMS, Fire Department and Police Department,” he said.

Scott had originally appointed Goetz, a Cranbury resident and former township committeewoman and mayor, to the position at a Township Committee meeting on Aug. 24. Goetz went on to decline the position after facing harsh criticism of her appointment. She said the criticism could become problematic and distracting by making it unable for her to effectively do her job and ignore the constant chatter.

Under state law, Goetz would have served for a three-year term as OEM coordinator.

Goetz’s appointment raised questions from members of the township committee about the process of her appointment and her meeting the qualifications for the position.

According to part of the state law for Municipal OEM Coordinators (Directive NO. 102), qualifications included that coordinators shall have a minimum of two years’ experience in the planning, development and administration of emergency response activities such as those provided by police, fire, rescue, medical or Emergency Management units either in the public or private sector or in the military service.

“We asked for clarifications on the qualification points and county and state officials said they are just recommendations. That they are not absolute prerequisites for the position,” Scott said. “If some did not have qualifications that were exact they would would still be fine and comfortable with the appointment.”

In addition to questions about Goetz’s qualifications, accusations of political patronage from residents through an online forum regarding Scott’s appointment had prompted firm denials of those accusations from both Goetz and Scott. Goetz holds the current position of chairwoman of the Cranbury Democratic Committee and Scott is one of four Democrats on the township committee.

Scott reiterated that his appointment was not politically motivated or political patronage.

The original need for the appointment arose at a time when township officials were made aware that Cranbury was in violation of a state statute for the Municipal OEM coordinator position, which requires that the holder of the position be a resident of the municipality in which they serve. State law supersedes Cranbury’s municipal code which had stipulated that the OEM coordinator only had to be a Middlesex County resident.

Varga has been OEM coordinator for Cranbury during his tenure. Township officials had recently learned that Varga was not eligible for position currently due to the residency requirements of the state law. Owens, who has been tapped as Cranbury’s next police chief, was also not seen as eligible for the coordinator position because he is not a resident of Cranbury.

At the time of Goetz appointment, Cranbury officials stated that no other officer within the police department would be eligible to take over the coordinator position as well in lieu of Varga or Owens.