Amidst an FBI probe into county hiring practices and a rebuke of county Republican leadership less than two weeks ago, the Ocean County Board of Commissioners split on retaining County Administrator Carl Block until the end of the year – ultimately deciding he must leave in September – and spurred a heated and contentious outcry from residents and party officials after hiring a little-known retired New Jersey state trooper as the county’s future deputy administrator over the longtime and much-lauded Chief Financial Officer, who it was revealed asked to be considered for the position.
The commissioners faced a standing-room-only crowd of onlookers as they checked off agenda items before opening a public comment session on the appointments. Ultimately, the board appointed longtime Assistant Business Administrator Michael Fiure as administrator come Sept. 1, and Tristin J. Collins, the retired trooper, to two positions – Assistant Business Administrator and Director of Management and Budget come Sept. 1. His salary was not announced.
Collins, Commissioner Director Jack Kelly said, would begin work Aug. 1, but as a “confidential aide,” an announcement that drew groans from some members of the audience. Confidential aide positions are often utilized to hire candidates for positions outside of the civil service process, and are sometimes used by officials to create positions for political allies.
Consternation among county insiders and Republican party faithful has swirled around the rumored appointment of Collins as assistant administrator despite initial indications by members of the board that he was not under consideration for the post. Ultimately, many of the same officials were forced to admit that Collins had been spotted around the county administration building as early as March and had been interviewed for the position, which was never advertised to the public.
There was also an outcry over the status of Block’s position, with dueling theories as to whether the popular former Stafford Township mayor and elected county clerk was being forced out of the top county post – or simply retiring. At Wednesday’s meeting, it was revealed by Kelly that Block had asked to remain in his position until January, at which point he would retire. It was also revealed that Julie Tarrant, who has drawn high praise for her mastery of county budgeting in her current role as Chief Financial Officer, expressed an interest in the assistant administrator position, but was not selected in favor of Collins.
The exact connection between Collins and county officials – including how he was notified of a job opportunity in the spring, potentially before he retired from the State Police – has never been fully explained. Sources have said Commissioner Virginia Haines was the major proponent of hiring Collins, though others have said he was recommended by Sheriff Michael Mastronardy, who last week suffered a defeat in his bid to become Ocean County Republican party chair.
George Gilmore, the longtime chair who stepped down after facing tax-related charges, was elected to return to the chairmanship post. Gilmore received a pardon from President Donald Trump in relation to the tax charges, but may still owe a debt to the IRS.
Gilmore was the among the first to rise to speak at the meeting before the commissioners took a vote on the appointment. The majority of the discussion centered around the then-pending appointment of Collins.
“I learned today for the first time that, for the position of Mr. Collins, that Julie Tarant had applied,” said Gilmore. “We know the capabilities of this woman – we know how good she is, and she could do it with her eyes closed. But we’re going to reject her, because some time ago you made a deal with Tristin Collins.”
For his part, Kelly said he changed his mind about the appointment of Collins and supported hiring Tarrant, who offered to remain on as CFO while also serving as the assistant administrator. A poll was taken at some point in a closed session meeting on the matter, and the majority did not waiver in their support for Collins.
“The majority of the board decided they felt Tristin Collins was ready to be the assistant administrator now, effective Sept. 1,” Kelly said, adding, “this isn’t a board of one.”
Ruthanne Scaturro, a former Brick councilwoman who last week was elected deputy GOP party chair, excoriated the board for its refusal to allow Block to finish out the year in his position.
“Carl Block has served the community of Ocean County for 40 years,” Scaturro said. “He had to be persuaded to come to this position about 12 years ago, and he has been doing a great job by everyone’s account.”
Scaturro said her comments should not be construed as an attack on Collins, who she praised for his experience in law enforcement, but an endorsement of a candidate for the assistant administrator role with more experience in local government.
At one point, Kelly said an “updated resume” for Collins was made available, though there was little elaboration as to what the new resume contained.
Commissioner Gary Quinn, later in the meeting, said he may have been persuaded to support the appointment of Tarrant to the position, but she applied later in the process and he had “made commitments to other people” based on prior interviews and considerations.
“If Julie came to us in the beginning, it might have been different,” said Quinn, adding that he believes Tarrant may be interested in retiring in a few years and the county was looking at a ten-year plan.
The board voted unanimously to promote Fiure to administrator as of Sept. 1. On the appointment of Collins as assistant administrator, all of the commissioners except Kelly voted in favor of the hiring. Kelly did, however, vote in favor of hiring Collins to the Director of Management and Budget position.