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PASSING THE TORCH
...Newly appointed Union County Manager Michael J. Lapolla is congratulated by outgoing County Manager Ann M. Baran at last week’s Freeholder meeting. Mrs. Baran has accepted the directorship of the newly created Gateway Center for Economic Development.

Freeholder Board Appoints Michael J. Lapolla As Union County Manger to Replace Mrs. Baran

By PAUL J. PEYTON

Specially Written for The Westfield Leader and The Times

The leadership of Union County government was passed last week to Michael J. Lapolla as he became the eighth Union County Manager since voters approved the County Manager form of government in 1975. Mr. Lapolla officially will take on his new duties effective June 14.

He replaces Ann M. Baran, the first woman to serve in that role, who has served as County Manager for the past seven years. Ironically, Mrs. Baran was named Acting Manager in 1988 by a Democrat-controlled Freeholder board which included Mr. Lapolla as its Chairman.

He will receive a salary of $119,500, roughly $6,000 less than what Mrs. Baran was receiving after seven years on the job. Unlike Mrs. Baran, Mr. Lapolla was not given a contract and instead will "serve at the pleasure of the board," according to the resolution approved by the Freeholders.

Mrs. Baran announced her resignation earlier this month so that she could assume the duties as Director of the newly-created Gateway Center for Regional Development at Kean College of New Jersey

Having served as a member of the Board of Chosen Freeholders, Mr. Lapolla has served in the Prosecutor’s Office since 1991. His wife, Susan MacMillan, is also an Assistant Prosecutor.

Mrs. Baran, who introduced Mr. Lapolla to the board, referred to him, as a man of "intensity" and a "man of integrity."

"I think Michael has what it takes to do the job," she told the board as well as to the packed Freeholder meeting room. She said Mr. Lapolla "deserves the full support" of the entire Freeholder board, county employees and the communities they serve.

"The manager’s position is one of public trust and it requires someone with personal and professional credentials and qualities. I think Michael has what it takes to do the job," Mrs. Baran said.

The county manager said, Mr. Lapolla has been supportive of the non-profit community, involved in the economic development of the business community, and served in the prosecutor’s office with "integrity." Mrs. Baran noted that Mr. Lapolla also has been involved in the Union County Alliance, a group of business leaders, and the county’s long range strategic planning.

"I think he is committed to public service and committed to good government and excellence in government," she said, adding that she will offer Mr. Lapolla her full support during his transition into the position.

Mr. Lapolla, currently the county’s Acting First Assistant Prosecutor, has been active in county government since 1983 when at the age of 26 he joined the Board of Chosen Freeholders. Reelected in 1986, he served as Chairman in 1988. He served briefly in 1990 as Assistant Counsel to former Governor James J. Florio.

Among those who presented strong accolades regarding the new manager was Union County College President Dr. Thomas H. Brown. He said Mr. Lapolla possesses two important factors: a firm commitment to education and strong interest in economic development.

"If Michael Lapolla were a piece of stock he’d be on the New York Stock Exchange and if I were a stockbroker I’d issue an order to buy him," stated Dr. Brown.

Maureen Tinen, a member of the Union County Economic Development Corporation, said she believes Mr. Lapolla, as was the case with Mrs. Baran, will be "very approachable" to the business community. A former neighbor of Mr. Lapolla’s, she said she is "enthusiastic" about his new role as county manager.

Peter Shields, Director of the Center for Hope Hospice, said the new county manager has always been a "very dedicated public servant" for the county. He said Mr. Lapolla has not only been dedicated to the center but also to the well-being of the county’s senior citizens.

He was described a "a good friend of labor" by Christopher O’Boyle who spoke on behalf of the Building Trades.

Following the accolades from the community, the board moved forward with the appointment process. While Democrats were fully supportive, their Republican counterparts expressed reservations about the majority party’s decision not to follow the board's by-laws to launch a recruitment search for a new county manager.

Republican Freeholder Edwin H. Force said he considers Mr. Lapolla a "very worthy" and "hard working" individual. He did say, though, that the county and its residents "lost a great opportunity" by the board’s failure to conduct a national search to find other qualified candidates so that the board could be offered a choice.

He said due to the downsizing trend at many corporations, there is a "raft of very talented people out there" that the board has not taken an opportunity to seek out and interview by virtue of its action.

Although he voted in favor of the appointment, Freeholder Force expressed displeasure with the Democrats over having the Republicans not included in the process for hiring Mr. Lapolla and setting his salary.

"Republicans are part of our county. We were totally isolated" on the process, he told the board. He said the latest action by the Democrats followed a trend by the majority party to exclude Republican input.

He said he did not want to be an obstructionist and thus supported Mr. Lapolla for county manager.

The only board member not to vote in favor of the appointment was Republican Freeholder Henry W. Kurz. He decided to abstain so as to protest the Democrats’ decision not to follow its by-laws and begin the search process. He was critical of the Democrats for not following this process which they promised to undertake a few weeks ago at a press conference at which Mrs. Baran announced her resignation. Freeholder Kurz said he was looking forward to the process of hiring a new manager.

"Now all of a sudden this (a national search) is not necessary?" questioned Freeholder Kurz, who served on the search committee for the county’s selection of a new jail director who was hired earlier this year.

He said Mr. Lapolla would probably have "fared very well" against other candidates in the interview stage. He said the only involvement he had up to last week’s vote was a call from Mr. Lapolla on May 16 at which time Mr. Lapolla asked for his support.

Freeholder Vice Chairman Daniel P. Sullivan added that, "In terms of the search, sometimes you can find things right under your own nose. And here we found, what I believe to be the perfect candidate, right on the second floor."

Fellow Democrat, Freeholder Nicholas P. Scutari, congratulated the board on its swift nomination of Mr. Lapolla. He said a search process would have led to a "long and drawn out transitional period."

Republican Frank H. Lehr said he was "delighted" to support the appointment of Mr. Lapolla. He joked that he was Freeholder Chairman in 1983 when he was opposed in the Freeholder’s race by a young Mr. Lapolla who ended up beating him.

He said two to three months ago he informed Mr. Lapolla of the possibility of an opening in the County Manager’s office. Freeholder Lehr said he told Mr. Lapolla that he was the best person for the job, given his six years as a Freeholder and the past six years as an Assistant Prosecutor.

"He knows the procedure. He’s intelligent. He will bring stability to this county," said Freeholder Lehr. He did, however, join with his Republican colleagues on the board in stating that the procedure for hiring Mr. Lapolla was flawed.

Freeholder Chairwoman Linda d. Stender explained that, "Whether it is unanimous or not, there will be no votes against Michael Lapolla tonight. Clearly to me, that answers the question of why we waived the (search) process."

She said the search process was created to ensure the board hires managers that are "qualified, competent individuals." She noted the search process also was waived when Mrs. Baran was hired, also by a Democrat controlled board, as county manager.

Mrs. Stender said it was her intention to conduct a national search to find a person to "lead this county forward."

"As the events unfolded and it became evident that Michael was in fact interested in this job, the purpose of a search was no longer necessary," Freeholder Stender explained. "He certainly has all the credentials and he cares about the people. I don’t think there is anything more we can ask of a person that we appoint as the next county manager."

Following his appointment, Mr. Lapolla, who was seated in the first row, thanked the board for its trust in him.

"I promise you the best that I can do as county manager," said Mr. Lapolla. He acknowledged the many well-wishers in attendance by stating sometimes government gets a "bad rap."

"There are hundreds of fine men and women who work very hard to make this county a great place and I look forward to working with you (the board) and I look forward to working with them," responded Mr. Lapolla.

In other business the board approved a resolution which authorized the County Manager to submit an application to the New Jersey Historic Trust for the rehabilitation of the Homestead Farmhouse at the Oak Ridge Golf Course in Clark. The request is for state funding in the amount of $500,000 which will be matched by the county for a total of $1 million.

Prior to voting on the resolution, Freeholder Kurz was given a promise by Freeholder Stender that if successful in gaining the grant the board will move forward by constructing a new golf clubhouse for Oak Ridge golfers.

The Homestead Farmhouse, which dates back to the early 1700s, is currently utilized for a clubhouse. Freeholder Kurz said he did not want to see the building restored for historical purposes without ensuring that golfers will be given adequate facilities.

A few years ago the Republican majority had proposed tearing down the facility to construct a new clubhouse. That decision brought out Clark Historical Society members and other history buffs who asked that the building be preserved because of its historical significance.

The building has since been listed as an historical landmark, also known as the Robinson-Bownes House, on both the state and national level, thus saving it from demolition.

The board also voted on a resolution to end a county benefits plan, initiated by the Republicans last year, for county employees who retire with 15 years or more of service to the county. The motion fell one vote shy of passing with four affirmative votes, three votes against and one abstention. The verdict on the resolution was not known until last Friday upon further review by the Office of the County Counsel.

Freeholder Lehr said it was always his understanding that five votes are necessary on a nine-member board to pass a resolution. On her first reaction, Acting County Counsel Christine Nugent said the motion failed, which angered Mrs. Stender, who said she specifically had inquired a legal opinion from Ms. Nugent about the vote during a break in the meeting. Mrs. Stender said that opinion was that the board had enough members present to pass the resolution.

The Democrats fell a vote shy due to the absence of Freeholder Goncalves, who had to leave the meeting early.

Representatives of the county’s Board of Social Services, along with correctional officers, asked the board to keep the benefits in place. They noted that more people would take the package if they fully understood the benefits.

Copyright 1997
TheWestfield Leader.
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10/25/97.

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