HACKETTSTOWN, NJ (Warren County) – One of the longest-serving Freeholders in Warren County history, Deputy Director Rick Gardner, announced that he will not run for a 7th term on the County Board of Chosen Freeholders when his term expires in 2021.
Gardner made the surprise announcement Wednesday morning during a live episode of Educationally Speaking on RNJ.
“I love working for the people, and I’ve always considered it a very high honor to serve the people of Warren County with great respect and due regard and I’ve never taken one day for granted,” Gardner said. “But, it’s time for me to think about other things in my life.”
Gardner, who won his first term in 2003, is the longest-serving member of the current Freeholder Board and, according to him, the longest serving Warren County Freeholder in 100 years.
He said that he made the decision after months of deliberation, citing his wife’s retirement and the birth of his grandson as factors in his decision.
“I finally realized it’s time,” Gardner said. “The county’s in wonderful shape and I couldn’t be happier right now.”
Among his major accomplishments in office, Gardner noted one of his earliest initiatives, the County Projects Committee. Under the committee’s oversight, the county remodeled six buildings including repurposing the former Warren Haven nursing home into the current environmental building, as well as renovations to the County Courthouse and the adjacent Warden’s house.
During Gardner’s tenure, Warren County also revitalized the library system by acquiring the sites of the Northeast Branch and the Headquarters branch, which also houses the Human Services Department. Construction of the Southwest Branch in Stewartsville was completed last year. In 2017, Gardner said the New Jersey Library Association named Warren County’s the most improved library system statewide.
Projects including the Southwest Branch were funded without increasing county taxes. The 2019 county budget is $91 million dollars, the lowest it’s been since 2004. The budget has decreased by a little over $22 million since 2014, when the county began discussions to sell Warren Haven at auction.
Looking ahead to serving as Freeholder Director in his final year on the Board, Gardner predicted that the Freeholders may be able to reduce county taxes again.
During Wednesday’s program, co-host and President of Warren County Community College, Dr. Will Austin, both praised Gardner’s service and lamented his departure.
“There are literally people alive in this county who have only known Rick as a leader in their government,” Austin said. “For a lot of us who work in this environment, Rick has been the constant on that Freeholder Board for so long; the voice you could always count on, the person you could always go to. Freeholder Gardner is irreplaceable.”
Gardner was an early supporter of the college opening the Phillipsburg satellite campus in 2011. More recently, the college added an annex to their main Washington Township campus with Freeholder support. WCCC also developed a drone technology program, with flight grounds in Washington Township and a lab in Phillipsburg dedicated to former Freeholder Director, Ed Smith and his wife.
The Executive Director of the Foundation for WCCC and former Mayor of Washington Township, Samir Elbassiouny, credited Gardner on Wednesday for his responsiveness to municipal concerns, particularly when Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc in 2012.
“Whenever a municipality needed something in the county, Rick was always the first call you made. There’s one class-act politician that I’ve ever worked with, and it’s Rick Gardner.”
Dr. Austin echoed that sentiment, and asked Gardner what he believed helped him succeed in government.
“You have your own perspective on government, no question,” Gardner said. “But you need to put that in focus with the public’s perspective on what they want and try to balance those two.”
He criticized the increasingly “visceral” discourse in State and national politics, saying that government doesn’t have to be as difficult as it can seem. That may be especially true in Warren County, which has been run exclusively by Republican Freeholders since 2003.
Chairman of the Warren County Democratic Party , Tom Palmieri, said in an interview that Gardner’s worked hard as a public servant and “always strived to do what’s best for the county.”
He credited the Board for keeping debt low, but questioned Freeholders’ efforts at economic development in order to slow the rate of residents moving out.
“They’ve not been as proactive as I wish they’d been in regards to bringing in industries and businesses to the region,” Palmieri said. “That’s been my biggest disappointment. They have a committee, but they haven’t put any real money behind bringing in businesses to this region. I wish they had more vision for the future in that area.”
Palmieri said that Democrats have yet to identify a potential candidate but will be on the lookout for one willing to put the work in.
Eleven months out from the 2020 election and so soon after Gardner’s surprise announcement, there aren’t yet any clear successors to his seat among Warren County Republicans. Dr. Austin, who said he’s advised past would-be candidates of their poor odds to beat Gardner, said that now is an opportune time for Freeholder hopefuls to consider a run.
Asked what advice he had for those considering running for elected office, Gardner said, “you know who you are as an individual, you must maintain your own center of gravity.”
As for his own future in public service, Gardner, who owns a farm in Franklin Township, did not rule out the idea of serving in other roles.
“My passion throughout my life has always been agriculture and if there’s something in the future that comes along in that vein, I’ll probably look at it as well.”
Far from disappearing into the sunset, though, Gardner will likely remain a force in Warren County politics.
“Oh, I’ll still be a fighter in the background,” he said.