Former Atlantic City Council President Walter Collette who had a long -- and controversial -- public service career in the resort died this week, longtime friend Edmund Colanzi said.
"I lost a friend," said Colanzi, who was a city commission from 1976 to 1982. "Of all the people I've known, Walter Collette was on the plus side."
Collette's daughter called Colanzi on Monday to tell him of the passing. The former city police officer had been ill for months and was living in a nursing home in Galloway Township, his friend said. He was in his mid- to late-80s, friends estimated.
Friends said he was an honest man who cared about his friends, family and Atlantic City.
"First, last and always, was his concern for Atlantic City," said friend Murray Rosenberg, of Yellow Cab.
In an interview more than two decades ago, Collette counted the $5 million renovation of Garden Pier as his biggest accomplishment.
While there were allegations of bribery that marred his career both as a police officer and politician, friends remembered him as a honest man who was always there for his friends.
"I can't stop singing his praises and probably never will," said Rosenberg, 72, who had known Collette his whole life.
"You couldn't talk Walter into stealing a dime. I will never believe (the allegations)," he said. "I would question anybody who had a bad thing to say about Walter Collette."
Collette joined the Atlantic City Police Department in 1954, and was head of the force's intelligence unit after being made captain in 1969.
In 1973, he was one of 25 resort officers named in a massive state indictment charging him with three counts of unlawful taking totaling about $120 to give to another officer. While he didn't plead guilty, he agreed to leave the department in 1975.
He later became security chief for the city Housing Authority. But he was eventually pushed out of that position because he was simultaneously a member of City Council and authorities ruled that presented a conflict.
Politically, Collette was active since the early 1960s as president of the First Ward Republican Club. He made a run for city commission in 1964 while still a police sergeant. He eventually became politically allied with James L. Usry and was a vocal proponent of changing the city government to a mayor-council form.
He was elected the first city councilman from the 1st Ward and immediately became a hectoring critic of Michael Matthews, who had defeated Usry for the mayor’s post. After Matthews was later indicted for bribery, Collette helped Usry defeat Matthews in a 1984 recall election.
"Walt was a no-nonsense kind of councilman and the foremost authority of Robert's Rules of Order concerning parliamentary procedure," Mayor Lorenzo Langford said. "But what I remember most was his passion for Atlantic City's Florence Valore Miller Arts Center."
His passion also led to some arguments on city council, even flare-ups with his allies.
"People in public life can't make everyone happy all the time," Colanzi said.
In 1986, Collette endorsed Bernard B. Fulton over Usry in a general election. He later switched back to Usry when he faced a runoff election with Dolores Cooper.
In 1989, he was one of 13 city officials -- including Usry -- indicted in the state’s ill-fated COMSERV investigation.
Collette was charged with taking a $1,000 bribe from Wells Fargo sales manager Al Black to influence the city zoning board and support a zoning change on city council. Throughout the probe, Black posed as a crooked businessman willing to pay for political favors.
Collette was eventually acquitted, as were most defendants.
He vigorously maintained that the probe was an attack meant to destroy black political power in the resort.
“The way they arrested us was deplorable,” Collette said in a 1992 interview. “The way they presented their case was deplorable.”
Collette said his greatest failure was his inability to block the sale of the Atlantic City International Airport by the city to the state.