By John Burton
OCEANPORT – F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American life. Fitzgerald clearly never met John Bennett.
“This is what, my third, or fourth career?” said Bennett, who stepped back from the practice of law Jan. 1 when he was named borough administrator and department of public works supervisor.
“You might take a new job during your work life, but this is a whole other career,” he said.
Bennett had been holding the two posts on an interim, part-time basis for a few months while borough officials searched for a permanent replacement. The borough initially hired retired Neptune administrator Philip Huhn to serve in an interim capacity but then Bennett, who had been borough attorney, said he wanted to apply for the positions and he was hired at $90,000 a year.
Bennett, 65, who has lived in Red Bank for the last six years, had a 40-year legal career, specializing in municipal and land use law. In addition, he has been a Republican Party stalwart for much of that time. For 24 years Bennett served as an elected representative to the state Legislature –elected to the Assembly in 1979 and then appointed to fill a Senate vacancy in 1989. He went on to win four terms in the Senate. During his tenure, Bennett was Senate majority leader, copresident and was acting governor in 2002.
Bennett lost his controversial reelection bid for the 12th District in 2003. But in 2012 he was elected as the Monmouth County Republican Committee chairman. He plans to seek reelection to that post in June.
Along with those roles, Bennett has been teaching courses in state and local government at Montclair State University for the past five years.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my life in that I’ve had the chance at second careers,” he said. “I loved them all.”
With the responsibilities these new positions offer, Bennett has considerably scaled back his legal work. He had been the managing partner for the Dilworth Paxson firm’s Red Bank office, and was representing a number of municipalities. Now he remains of-counsel with the firm, working in an advisory role. He is now collecting his state pension from the numerous public positions he has held throughout the year.
His daughter, Megan Bennett Clark, has taken over as managing partner and is working as Little Silver’s attorney, a post Bennett held for a number of years.
Paring down some of his responsibilities means, he has been “getting a chance to spend time with my five grandkids.”
There is plenty for him to do in Oceanport.
“There are a lot of things going on that I want to play a part in,” he said.
The community is facing challenges with the lengthy redevelopment of the former Fort Monmouth property. The borough is looking to work with federal, state and county agencies to bring the proper mix of uses to benefit and protect the community and the surrounding area. On top of that, borough officials are working with representatives from Monmouth Park racetrack, as the owners plan to develop it as year-round attraction. Monmouth Park is a particularly important location for the borough, because it contributes as much as 25 percent of all taxes the borough receives, Bennett said.
Bennett sees his experience in land-use law as a real asset with those projects.
Keeping him equally busy has been a particularly active, storm-ridden winter that has taxed public works’ six employees. Bennett, like many of his counterparts, needed to secure the hard-to-find road salt and caused him to spend a number of all-nighters in borough hall.
Another project on the front burner is moving borough employees and business offices to the Old Wharf House on East Main Street. The nearly 50-year-old borough hall on Monmouth Boulevard has been found to be in much worse shape structurally from the damage Sandy wrought than first thought.
“Even though it’s a small town,” with a population of approximately 5,500, “there’s a lot going on,” he said.
The role of administrator, as Bennett sees it, is to be responsible for the day-to-day operations of the municipal government and keep the mayor and council abreast of what’s happening. Bennett has found that his considerable Rolodex of contacts throughout the state, and especially in Trenton, has been helpful in some cases. “You come up into a job like this and it’s helpful to know people,” Bennett said.
At this stage of life, it’s important to be doing something you enjoy. “I am, I truly am,” he said adding, “but, don’t ask me at 4 a.m. during a storm when I’m here” in the office.
There are no retirement plans as of now. He plans to continue keeping busy.
“As long as I have the ability to give something, I want to do it,” and “keep this a nice place to live.”