Longtime Scotch Plains Township Manager Tom Atkins' Sage Advice for Successors

SCOTCH PLAINS, NJ -- Since Tom Atkins' retirement from the position of Township Manager in 2008, Scotch Plains has five (yes, five) different managers in a little over five years. With Jerry Giaimis' departure on Dec. 31, a soon-to-be-named successor will take over a position that has averaged little more than one year of stability.

It begs the question, how did Atkins survive all those years?

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"I worked with some very good people during my years in the position. With few exceptions, they were supportive, interactive, wanted professionalism in government, and wanted everyone treated in an non-partisan manner," Atkins said in a phone interview with TAP into SPF.  "I had wonderful elected mayors and councils -- 36 different members in my 28 years -- and had problems with only three of them. Two of those go back to the 1980s, and no one remembers them."

Atkins maintains that he handled all of his duties in a non-partisan way. 

"If you ask almost anyone, they'd agree that the Scotch Plains residents elected quality people over the years," said Atkins, who left retirement in 2011 to take a part-time position as business administrator in Watchung.

What are the biggest challenges a township manager faces?

"If there are personality differences that are real in people's minds, those cause far greater problems than whether someone is a Democrat or Republican," Atkins explained.  "When personal animosity is involved, problems arise. If there is a dislike and distrust between officials, it doesn't matter which party they belong to."

Atkins, a Fanwood resident, believed that people in town knew they could call him if they had a concern. "If they had a truly partisan solution in mind, they knew not to call me."

While Atkins declined to comment specifically on recent events in Scotch Plains, he said that he considers longtime building and zoning official Bob Lacosta a good friend and "a top employee who had a lot of responsibilities." Often when he left for vacation during his tenure, Atkins designated Lacosta as acting manager.

"I can't critique what is happening now because I didn't live through it, and I don't know what the relationship with the current Township Manager was," said Atkins, who earned his MPA (Master of Public Administration) from the University of Tennessee and his undergraduate in Political Science from Catawba College, a small school in Salisbury, N.C., where he met his wife Bonnie.

Terminations

Recent controversies in Scotch Plains have centered on the departures of Lacosta, the township's building and zoning manager, and Paul Malool, a veteran fire battalion chief. Although unable to shed light on the current situation, Atkins recounted the process he went through when he terminated a police officer accused of sexual harassment in 2002.

"I hired an independent hearing officer to make a recommendation on what the disciplinary action should be," said Atkins, explaining that he did not want to be both prosecutor filing the charges and the judge.

"The hearing officer oversaw the proceedings and recommended that the officer should be terminated," said Atkins, who fired the policeman.  "I made a decision based on the independent hearing officer's recommendation.  Under the Council Manager form of government, the manager has the final say.  Ultimately, the civil service commission upheld the decision after the police officer appealed."

Atkins also explained that the civil service process recommends "progressive discipline" in which an employee first is reprimanded for a transgression. Secondly, a written reprimand and suspension are handed out. Any major suspension (five days or more) or termination can be appealed.

Advice for the Next Township Manager

"You always need to try to get to know the fabric of the community and run things professionally in a non-partisan manner," Atkins said, suggesting that whoever becomes the new Township Manager should talk to longstanding employees to get their perspectives and to see Scotch Plains through their eyes.

"Treat all members of council equally with respect and courtesy whether you get along with them or not," said Atkins, who is a graduate of Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School. "In this form of government, you have five bosses (the five Council members). You have to try to understand their view of Scotch Plains. The first thing I did in 1980 was to have a private meeting with each of them, and learn about them and their families."

"See the common denominators that existed between the five of them and then determine could these common values to help Scotch Plains reach its goals," advised Atkins, who added, "Ask yourself, 'How can we deliver services the right way?' That's what matters to the residents."

Overall, Atkins' view is that it is important that the manager, as a CEO, can lead people and pull them toward the center.

"People in Scotch Plains just want things to run well and for their public servants to be accountable."