Split GOP Argues Over Top Ocean County Job

George Gilmore, head of the county Republicans, makes his case for Block. (Photo by Stephanie A. Faughnan)

  OCEAN COUNTY – Carl Block’s tenure as the longest serving county administrator in Ocean’s history comes to an end on August 31, although he’d hoped to stay on until at least the new year. Block’s now in the market for a new job.

  Block, 71, became a fixture in Ocean County politics decades ago. He served as Stafford Township mayor for 26 years and was later elected to two terms as the Ocean County Clerk. The then-Freeholder Board appointed Block as county administrator for his first three-year term in 2010.

Ocean County Administrator Carl Block’s last day on the job is August 31, 2022. (Photo by Stephanie A. Faughnan)

  Although Deputy Director of the Ocean County Board of Commissioners Virginia “Ginny” Haines and Commissioner Gary Quinn both said Block initially said he planned on retiring this year, Block said he has no recollection of the conversation. Instead, the outgoing county administrator said he asked for a new three-year appointment last November.

  “I told them I decided I wanted to work longer and probably wouldn’t finish the three years,” shared Block. “I saw it as better for my family and me and the transition, as we should have been hiring people earlier to get them in for training.”

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  The request didn’t bode well with Quinn, who was concerned Block could change his mind and continue to stay on through the entire three-year extended term. Quinn dismissed the proposal based on commitments made to other individuals and the quest to move forward in the name of progress.

  “I have always said Carl does a fantastic job, and I truly believe he does a good job,” said Quinn. “Everybody does a good job – everybody’s replaceable. We’re looking right now to take and go into this future with this county and find people who will lead us there. We all agree on one thing – that (assistant administrator) Mike Fiure is definitely the guy to lead us in that direction.”

  Block sat quietly on the dais with the commissioners as multiple supporters advocated for an extension of his time in office. The audience of approximately 100 people clearly identified as members of the Ocean County GOP, including a number of locally elected government officials.

  “I will tell you the administrator has requested to keep him on in his current capacity as a holdover until January 1,” said Jack Kelly, Director of the Ocean County Board of Commissioners, as he opened the meeting for public comment. “After much discussion – and it was not unanimous (in Executive Session), the Board decided to make the new appointments effective September 1.”

Some of the Barnegat GOP members sat with Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore and emphasized their support for the outgoing county administrator. (Photo by Stephanie A. Faughnan)

  Although Kelly said he wanted to give Block the extra four months because he’d done such a great job for so many years, the Director ultimately voted with his colleagues to approve Fiure’s contract start date to replace Block. Retired state trooper Tristan Collins will take on the role of Director of Management & Budget and move into Fiure’s role as Assistant County Administrator. Collins’ appointment comes with its share of controversy.

  Kelly didn’t dispute Collins’ ability to take on the Director of Management & Budget position. However, he questioned whether Collins was ready to step in as Assistant County Administrator. Kelly was the sole dissenting vote against Collins’ appointment for the latter role.

  “Our comptroller Julie Tarrant also requested to be considered among the list of candidates (long after the process began),” Kelly revealed. “It was my suggestion we appoint Julie Tarrant, but after much discussion, the majority of the board decided Tristan Collins was ready to be the assistant administrator now.”

  Newly elected Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore spoke during the public session and referenced a letter he believed was hand-delivered to all of the commissioners. Unfortunately, due to what appeared to be a miscommunication, Kelly and Block were the only ones to receive the correspondence signed by political figures in Brick, Manchester, Barnegat, Berkeley, Little Egg Harbor, Lacey, and Toms River.

  All of the county leaders are Republican, although there has been division in the party lately.

  Gilmore went on to tell the story of his March 16 appearance at the commissioners’ meeting when he came to discuss the change in leadership roles. Newspaper articles led Gilmore to believe Block was stepping down. While he had no issues with Fiure assuming the administrator role, Gilmore had questions concerning the assistant administrator position.

Comptroller Julie Tarrant (at left) was also considered for the role of assistant administrator. (Photo by Stephanie A. Faughnan)

  “I asked if the position was advertised and was told no,” said Gilmore. “I asked if Tristan Collins was being considered for that position, and Commissioner Haines said she did not know if he was being considered.

  “Unfortunately, I learned that a month prior a handwritten note from Commissioner Haines was given to each of the commissioners recommending Tristan Collins as the deputy assistant and enclosing a copy of his resume,” Gilmore continued.

  Haines doesn’t deny she made the recommendation to her colleagues. She’s known Collins for over 20 years, and when she learned he intended to retire from the state police, Haines asked him for his resume. She said Collins had experience in both managing budgets and administration.

  “Someone leaked Tristan’s resume before it was ever approved,” shared Haines. “That’s illegal as certain things need to be redacted, and that wasn’t the case.”

  Since Haines only distributed the resume to the other four commissioners with her handwritten note, she can’t help but wonder how Gilmore got his hands on both. Haines also expressed concerns that it appeared someone circulated Collins’ resume to others before the appointment was ever approved.

County Commissioners, with Administrator Carl Block on the right, were at the center of a GOP debate. (Photo by Stephanie A. Faughnan)

  The theme ran consistently during the public comment session. People expressed their admiration for Block and then added accolades for Tarrant when they discovered she’d applied for the assistant administrator position.

  Many accused the commissioners of malfeasance, referencing FBI investigations into hiring practices and patronage job awards. Interestingly, a number of the speakers hold government positions or have family members assigned to them.

  “How do the commissioners, with a budget of approximately $480 million and 2,000 employees, think it is prudent and justify to their constituents hiring a person with no prior experience in public administration?” questioned Ruthanne Scaturro, newly elected Ocean County GOP Vice Chair

  “He (Collins) may be great in law enforcement, and maybe there’s a position for him in the sheriff’s department,” Scaturro continued. “This person will be a heartbeat away the top position in this county replacing the person that has kept the county fiscally conservative for so many years.”

  Barnegat, on its own, had seven prominent members of its local GOP organization show up in opposition to the commissioner’s proposed actions. Many were past or present elected officials in the Southern Ocean County community.

  “I rise today because I am weary, and I’m sick of the political climate that seems to be affecting this county,” said Barnegat resident Fred Rubenstein. “What I am about to say does not impugn or doubt the integrity of any one commissioner. Rather, it relies on that integrity.

County Commissioner Director Jack Kelly and GOP leader George Gilmore spoke together after the meeting. (Photo by Stephanie A. Faughnan)

  “What I’ve seen lately reminds me of Tammany Hall hooliganism,” Rubenstein continued. “I’m calling on Commissioner Haines to recuse herself from any further action until the charges that she has been served with have been adjudicated in a proper forum.”

  Rubenstein later clarified he was specifically referring to claims Haines removed items and records from Ocean County GOP offices on the night of the chairmanship’s race. Haines doesn’t deny she was at Republican headquarters but insists she merely helped the outgoing executive director remove personal items.

  “As the administrator in Barnegat, I can tell you that anytime there’s been a problem, Carl Block responds,” said Martin Lisella. “I’ve been in management three-quarters of my life…and to not give a loyal employee a requested extension of six months is a disgrace in plain English.

  “Have any of you had five bosses before? It’s not easy,” Lisella continued. “Commissioners are like all other politicians. I was deputy mayor. We have egos…it’s not right that you now treat him (Block) like this.”

  In the end, the elected county officials didn’t listen to their new party boss or those who asked them to reconsider the upcoming personnel changes.

County Commissioners, with Administrator Carl Block on the right, were at the center of a GOP debate. (Photo by Stephanie A. Faughnan)

  Though Block himself later shared he intentionally remained neutral in the Ocean County Republican Chairman’s race, the same didn’t appear valid for those who expressed outrage to the governing body. Their alignment seemed to directly correlate to Gilmore’s objections in speaking to the commissioners. Notably, the Ocean County Commissioners endorsed Gilmore’s opponent, Sheriff Michael Mastronardy, to lead the County GOP organization

  The Ocean County Commissioners ultimately unanimously approved a three-year contract for Assistant County Administrator Michael J. Fiure to replace Block in the leadership seat. Officials also appointed county newcomer Tristin J. Collins as Director of Management & Budget and Assistant County Administrator for the same term. Both appointments become effective on September 1, 2022.

  The Republican party remains clearly divided in Ocean County.

  “We have our differences, but I need to get people to overcome them,” Gilmore subsequently acknowledged. “We have to work now to bring the party together.”