HAMILTON TOWNSHIP — Amy Gatto was in eighth grade when she got to shadow then-Hamilton Township Deputy Mayor Joe Nickels for the township’s annual Youth in Government Day.

“I knew I wanted to serve my town in this way,” she said. “Everyone saw it early, and I know I was passionate about it.”

Little did Gatto know she would fulfill that goal earlier than the norm.

Gatto, who turned 30 on Dec. 9, became the youngest mayor in Hamilton Township history last year, and only the third woman to hold the position. And although 2011 featured several highs and lows, the youngest mayor in Atlantic County said she has grown through the experience.

“To serve as mayor has been incredible,” said the resident of the Laureldale section of the township. “It’s been a dream and an honor to serve.”

The year was filled with challenges, including coordinating with the Governor’s Office and state Office of Emergency Management during Hurricane Irene; a $2.4 million budget shortfall; staff layoffs, including 13 police officers; and personal threats that forced her to leave her house.

But it also included fun activities, such as performing 15 weddings, riding an elephant during a circus performance this summer at the Atlantic City Race Course; and fulfilling a lifetime dream by lighting the Christmas Tree during the township’s annual Tree Lighting Ceremony in November.

“You would never think you’d be doing things like that,” she said. “To go through all these highs and lows is humbling and a privilege.”

An early beginning

Jeri-Lynn Gatto, the mayor’s mother, taught her daughter in AP Government at Oakcrest High School, and remembers the day her daughter shadowed Nickels.

“She was ecstatic. She thought seeing the inside view of politics, there was nothing better. She was passionate about all those things,” said Jeri-Lynn Gatto, now the principal at Absegami High School in Galloway Township. “I knew it was a big moment for her. I would say a pivotal moment.”

Amy Gatto grew up in Mays Landing and worked at Mays Landing Video on Route 50 during high school and got to meet everyone in her neighborhood, her mother said.

“She really loved her town,” she said. “I was not surprised when she ran for office. She didn’t want to lose the connection to her town.”

Nickels knew Gatto before the Youth in Government Day and remembered her as one of those kids “who asked a lot of questions.”

“I teased her. I said, ‘If you’re going to follow me around, you’ve got to be me.’ I told her she’s got to be a firebrand. She laughed and said, ‘Fine.’ She took a liking to it,” he said. “I was really impressed with how mature she was for her age.”

A dozen years later, at 25, she decided she was ready to run for Township Committee. Gatto, who was already serving on the township’s Board of Education, came to Nickels’ home and asked him to run with her and fill a one-year term in the 2007 election.

“She said, ‘I really want to do this, and I’d feel great if you ran with me,’” Nickels said. “I didn’t really want to serve a one-year term, to be honest, but if I could help a young kid who I felt was in it for the right reasons, I’d help her do what she wanted to do.”

Gatto ran with Nickels and current Committeeman Roger Silva on a platform of open government. According to a news release issued in March 2007 by the county’s Republican Committee, Gatto said she “hopes to encourage Hamilton’s youth and young families to become more involved in local government.”

Following a victorious election, Jeri-Lynn Gatto remembered the advice she gave her daughter, who was serving with significantly older and all-male committee members.

“Whenever you are the new kid on the block, you have to earn respect,” she told her daughter. “Especially when you are the only woman (on the committee), you have to prove yourself time and time again. They will not care that you won an election. You have to show you can do the work.”

‘Miss Mayor’

The Township Committee chooses a mayor and deputy mayor during its reorganization meeting at the beginning of the year. Hamilton’s reorganization is scheduled for Tuesday.

In 2011, they decided it was time for Gatto, who was re-elected to a second term in 2009, to serve as mayor.

During the last Township Committee meeting of 2011, Silva, 71, thanked the mayor for her “courage and leadership to get through tough times.”

Maureen G. Bugdon, vice chairwoman of the Atlantic County Republican Committee, and a family friend of the Gattos, said Amy Gatto has handled her position with “magnificent grace, purpose and compassion.”

“I believe our community had high hopes for her when she was selected as mayor in January. However, she has exceeded our expectations in my opinion and proven to be not only a very capable and admirable mayor, but a leader among her peers on committee,” Bugdon said. “She’s also made me and many future female leaders enormously proud of the job she’s done and the way she’s handled herself in office.”

But being the mayor hasn’t been easy for Gatto. Pretty quickly, Gatto realized the increased demand the position had on her time.

“To be a single person, it’s tough to have a social life. It’s hard to have free time when I run to everything,” she said. “You always have to be on. You can be at the gym on a treadmill and get questions from someone. I joke about having a lot of informal town meetings at Wawa.”

While many local mayors are older and retired, Gatto works full time as a project manager for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“It’s very hard to balance everything. I have to go to work every day, but this is essentially a full-time job,” she said. “When an issue arises, I have to deal with them. It’s a real balance.”

And being a young female does get you noticed. The hosts of the “Joe and Scott in the Morning” radio show on 100.7 WZXL met Gatto at an event and soon after started referring to her as “the hot mayor.” Gatto said they have been very supportive and allow her to call in occasionally and discuss topics in the township.

Her age can also be a challenge, as people may not take her seriously.

“I tell people I’m a mayor, and they’ll say ‘of FourSquare?’” Gatto said, referring to the smartphone app in which people became “mayors” of locations by checking in to them frequently.

“I get all kinds of reactions. I’ll conduct a wedding and people will say, ‘You mean they don’t have anyone more experienced or mature as you?’ I get all kinds of comments and looks when I say I am the mayor,” she said. “I let that be a driver to show people there are young professionals out there making a difference in their community. Because I am young, I know people are watching and looking, especially for young women. I want to be the person they look to and say, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

And that’s where the mayor said she gets some of her most personal satisfaction: serving as a role model to young children — especially the girls — in the township.

“A lot said to me they didn’t know a woman could be mayor. To see their mind open up to that possibility is very rewarding to me,” she said. “Young kids are so excited, they call me Miss Mayor. I can kind of see the sparkle in their eye that I had. ‘Wow, a woman can do that.’”

And now Gatto hosts young students during Youth and Government Day.

“It’s so surreal,” she said.

Contact Joel Landau:

609-272-7215

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