MAYS LANDING — Dozens of people who gathered Tuesday at the Atlantic County Superior Court complex stood and applauded a “historic” day as county freeholders swore in two new members and elected their first female vice chair.
Democrats Ashley Bennett and Caren Fitzpatrick, who both ran for political office for the first time in 2017, took their seats on the Board of Chosen Freeholders, while Maureen Kern, a Republican incumbent, was elected as the board’s first vice chairwoman since it was formed in the 19th century.
John Risley, a Republican who won re-election in November, also was sworn in for another term.
“I’m still overwhelmed, but I’m so happy,” Bennett said after the ceremony. “I’m ready to work for the better of Atlantic County as a whole, and I’m happy to work with everyone on the board.”
Bennett defeated John Carman for the 3rd District seat. She said she decided to run after Carman shared a meme on Facebook during the Women’s March on Washington last year that asked if all the women would be home in time to cook dinner. The controversy made national news, and Bennett was interviewed live on Lawrence O’Donnell’s MSNBC show after she won in November.
With the swearing in of Bennett and Fitzpatrick, the board includes five men and four women. There are six Republicans and three Democrats.
Kern, who formerly served as the Somers Point City Council president, said she was raised to not let gender get in the way and focus on the job in front of her.
“I just work hard for everything that I try to do, so I don’t look at it as (a gender issue),” she said. “But I know it sends a powerful statement, and I really appreciate the support from everyone on the board to consider me for this position.”
Barbara Rheault, a councilwoman in Mullica Township, said during the public comment part of the ceremony she is always pleased to see women persist, rise up and be elected to public office.
“Please know that the women who have joined (the board) have remarkable talents (and) can help Atlantic County grow,” she told the freeholder board.
Entering the new year, the county will continue its push to diversify its economy away from gaming and more toward other forms of tourism, education and the buildup of an aviation industry.
Construction on the first building of the Stockton Aviation Research and Technology Park kicked off last spring, and the county announced plans to partner with Atlantic Cape Community College to create an aviation maintenance institute at the Atlantic City International Airport.
Officials say critical steps, including filling the SARTP building with tenants and creating a curriculum for the institute, must be taken in 2018 if the county wants to move forward with diversification before the end of the decade.
“We’re working hard to get the tenants (at the park) as we speak,” said Frank Formica, who was re-elected board chairman. “We’re also going to have a much more interactive freeholder board with the municipal mayors. We’re going to make sure they’re apprised to what we’re doing and we’re apprised to what they’re doing.”
For its first action of 2018, the board unanimously passed a resolution condemning a state Assembly bill that would allow internet gaming at state racetracks. Freeholders of both political parties said the bill, sponsored by Ralph Caputo, D-Essex, was nothing more than a back-door way to expand gaming beyond Atlantic City, which New Jersey voters overwhelmingly rejected in a November 2016 referendum.
“The fact of the matter is that 80 percent of the residents of New Jersey voted against that referendum,” Freeholder Ernest Coursey said during the meeting. “Any gaming outside of Atlantic City would be bad, and we cannot let (state lawmakers) do these things in the dark.”