BERNARDS TWP., NJ - In her role as municipal clerk, Denise Szabo, who also lives in the town where she worked for local government for more than 30 years, was often the person at town hall who made things happen.
It was a presidential election, no less, when Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey, and knocked trees down and power out for days _ in some spots for weeks afterwards. Szabo was municipal clerk on Nov. 6, 2012, ten days after the superstorm blew through the Somerset Hills.
Official retirement date of May 1
"When I look back on Sandy, I’m still amazed how we were able to hold the election. Roads were closed, we had no electricity which was needed to run the voting machines, trees and wires were down all over town, people couldn’t get to the polling sites and we were in a state of emergency," Szabo said recently, right before she officially retired from her position on May 1.
Typically, Szabo gives credit to the staff of Bernards Township employees, who she recalled "pulled together, and I was given the resources I needed to hold the election." She recalls that in the chaos of Sandy's aftermath, neither the county or state could offer help.
"Everyone from the animal control officer to the police chief stepped in and because of them the citizens of Bernards Township were able exercise their right to vote," she recalled. Some of the polling spots were shifted around, since some areas still didn't have power, but the election happened, as usual.
"I’ll never forget it," she said, referring to the event that Township Committee members also brought up while commending Szabo at the April 23 meeting for her decades of service.
Not every aspect of her role was as dramatic, and she said that some of her regular duties were especially gratifying. "One of the things I liked best about my job was administering the oath of office to mayors, elected officials, and employees. It never got old—it was always a privilege to do that."
Szabo's efficiency and dedication earned her positions with state and Somerset County municipal clerks organizations. In 2017, she served as president of the Municipal Clerks’ Association of NJ. Earlier, she had also served as president of the Somerset County Municipal Clerks’ Association, in 2001 and 2002.
Began career in Bernards Township in 1987
Szabo began her career in Bernards in 1987 working in the township Parks & Recreation, where she served as the Secretary to the Pool Commission. She also filled roles as secretary to the Environmental Commission, Zoning Board of Adjustment and Sewerage Authority before being appointed in Municipal Clerk in 1996.
For many years, Szabo worked closely with former Township Administrator Bruce McArthur, who retired last year.
Like McArthur, Szabo also is a resident of the town she served as a government employee. She has no plans to leave town _ and she will be taking on a completely different administrative role with an organization that originally was based in Basking Ridge.
Taking on new role as company manager of opera company
After her retirement, Szabo will be filling a rather different role, as company manager for the Light Opera of New Jersey.
The organization began in Basking Ridge in the 1990s, but expanded its sphere in 2013 with a broader geographic base and an eventual name change. "The organization changed its name to Light Opera of New Jersey (LONJ) in 2013 to reflect an expanding sphere of influence and nearly two decades of continuous improvement in musical quality and production value," she said. "Their home base is still Basking Ridge, but they also perform in South Orange, and will also soon be holding performances at the new Cultural Arts Center at Fellowship Village."
A proud moment, township officials recalled was when Szabo reached out to bring the US Navy band to Bernards Township as part of the township's 250th anniversary celebration. She said that longtime resident John Crane was the contact in arranging the performance.
"I’ve had a very rewarding career in Bernards," she said, summing up. "I loved working for town in which I’ve lived for 40-plus years and raised my family."
New municipal clerk is Rhonda Pisano
She said her goal was always "to be a contributor to good governance." She offered her support to Rhonda Pisano, the new municipal clerk.
"I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some incredible talented and dedicated people in a culture of support and respect for public service. I wish Rhonda Pisano all the best as the new Municipal Clerk."
"I hope that after 30-plus years, she too can look back at a fulfilling career with Bernards Township," she said.