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Montgomery Township’s Top Executive Retires After 23 Years at the Helm

By Lea Florentine | June 13, 2022

Donato Nieman, 70, has seen many changes in the seven decades he has lived in central New Jersey. For 23 of those years, he has served as Montgomery’s top executive, or township administrator. Regarding his years of public service, he says, “I love what I do.”

Former Montgomery Mayor Don Matthews (right) hired Donato Nieman in 1999.

Nieman was born in New Brunswick. His parents bought a farm in Franklin Township when he was four. The floors in the 1851 farmhouse were so uneven that his mother had to turn a cake as it baked so it wouldn’t become lopsided. He adds, “Every time it snowed we’d lose electricity.” Nieman grew up working around farms, and many of his friends were the children of farmers. “I’d help feed the cows and clean the manure out of the barn,” he says. “It taught me the value of hard work and that there was nothing wrong with breaking a sweat.”

Although Nieman’s father was an orthopedic surgeon at St. Peter’s and Robert Wood Johnson University hospitals, Nieman says of his parents, “Both of them grew up in extreme poverty and educated themselves.” His father graduated from Columbia University Phi Beta Kappa but, as Nieman notes, “there was a quota on the number of Jewish students admitted to medical school, so he got his medical degree in Arkansas.” Nieman says his mother “wanted to be independent.” She had been a pharmacist for Squibb until, as she told Nieman, “I met your father and he screwed it all up.”

Nieman is named after her brother Donato, a concert violinist who served as a radio operator during World War II until his plane crashed in the Himalayas in March of 1945. With a Jewish father and Italian mother, Nieman says, “In my house it was bagels and lox on Sunday morning and spaghetti on Sunday night.” His great aunt once asked his grandmother, “Why did you let your daughter marry a Jewish doctor?” His grandmother responded, “What [religion] is the owner of the building we worked at? What is your doctor? What is your lawyer?” “Jewish,” the great aunt replied. “We’ve tried to kill them for thousands of years and they’ve survived,” his grandmother said. “They’re genetically superior.”

Even as a young boy, says Nieman, “I understood that not everyone was as fortunate as I was.” One morning, when Nieman found a box of vegetables, his father explained, “That’s from the Totos, because they couldn’t pay my bill.” Nieman’s parents sent their three sons to public school because it was “the real world.”

Nieman graduated from Franklin High School in 1970 then earned a bachelor’s degree from Bloomsburg College. He says he taught school for two years until he was laid off. He decided to attend graduate school at Rutgers University – Newark to earn a master’s degree in public administration. He says he paid his tuition by playing trombone in the Princeton Swing Band and working at an E.J. Korvette’s store, where he met a cashier named Roberta, who was earning her tuition for Douglass College. They married nearly 40 years ago.

Nieman began his public service career with an internship in Trenton. After serving as assistant township manager for his hometown for six years, he became township administrator for Branchburg and then for South Brunswick. Regarding the changes Nieman made when he came to Montgomery, he says, “We needed to become a customer service oriented organization. I brought in professionals in government who were educated to do this work. We changed the culture.”

When Nieman came into work as the first snowstorm hit, no one else showed up. He called the public works staff into a meeting the next day and told them, “You were hired to plow. I expect you to be here.” When a worker made a snide remark as Nieman turned to leave, Nieman replied, “I’ll see you in my office.” The employee resigned the next day. Regarding fiscal policies, Nieman says, “We’ve been 135 employees since 2009 and we’re doing more with the same staff.” Referring to the plumbing and building officials, he says, “We have people doing three jobs.”

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The only department that has grown is the police force, due to the surge in Montgomery’s population. Nieman says he’s especially proud of the township’s purchase of the old North Princeton Developmental Center from the State of New Jersey – a 10- year process that ended when the township sued the state. “We went from demolishing all those asbestos-impregnated buildings to creating beautiful Skillman Park.”

One project that has spanned Nieman’s entire tenure here was consolidating the township’s eight wastewater / sewage treatment plants. The three remaining were upgraded to meet the state’s increasingly stringent water quality standards. Nieman says a new municipal building was overdue. “The original building is from the 1960s, with an addition made in 1989. There’s no more room left. “The seven-person Traffic and Detective Bureau works in an area designed for two people,” he adds.

Even in difficult times Nieman says he has enjoyed his job. “We provided COVID-19 vaccinations using the model developed in 2009 for H1N1 by Health Officer Stephanie Carey.” He says he and Carey were on the job “every day, and most, if not all, weekends.” Nieman says his work is “a calling.” “A good attorney once told me to be transparent and honest. When you treat people with respect, it’s returned.”

Nieman’s son Zach is a social studies teacher and volleyball coach for South Brunswick High School. His son Jake is following in his father’s footsteps. He is the tax assessor for Ocean Township, and he plans to become a township administrator. At statewide meetings, Jake is often asked, “You’re Donato’s son?”

Although Nieman loves his work, he says, “I’m 70 now; its time.” A retirement clock from an employee counts down his remaining time to the second. After retiring, he plans to lobby statewide for AARP, and he’s been asked to work for Habitat for Humanity. Nieman sums up his experience: “I’m glad I was able to improve the quality of life for Montgomery residents.”


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