The 143-year-old Hereford Inlet Lighthouse in North Wildwood is a tourist favorite. A 2013 editorial called it one of Cape May County’s hidden gems, discovered by many since.

Horticulturalists praise its well-maintained and lovely gardens for their beauty and plant selection. Backyard habitat experts applaud their service to butterflies and migrating birds. In October, as it does every year, the historic site took part in the state’s Lighthouse Challenge to visit all 11 accessible lighthouses within 48 hours.

The lighthouse is owned by the state Department of Environmental Protection, which leases it to the city. The Friends of Hereford Lighthouse, the nonprofit group that has largely created and sustained the attraction, operates it under a contract with the city.

When a public historic attraction is working well and widely admired, the goal of management should be first to ensure nothing threatens that success, and then to see if there are small improvements that could make it even better.

Apparently that’s not the approach for North Wildwood Mayor Patrick Rosenello.

At the end of November, when the lighthouse’s many summer fans were safely out of town, he complained publicly that he had issues with the Friends of Hereford Lighthouse, alleging they hadn’t filed a few annual reports and blaming them for the lighthouse not getting a small grant ($17,000 from the state, compared for example with $450,000 the lighthouse got in federal and state grants just for phase four of restoration work).

Rosenello also said he had received “several complaints” that Steven Murray, the nonprofit chairman and a former city worker, had cursed at or harassed city employees. Murray responded that he merely once “went ballistic” because a city employee drove and parked a truck on a walkway of personalized pavers honoring those supporting the lighthouse, damaging it.

A couple of days later, Rosenello stepped up his attack, accusing the Friends volunteers of “planning to loot the lighthouse” and changing the locks on the facility to prevent them from accessing it.

People often have disputes, and even two well-run entities can have trouble resolving their differences in a manner that best serves the public. We’re always reluctant to take sides in cases where both have probably contributed to the disagreement in ways we can’t possibly know.

But this much we know with certainty: Mayor Rosenello’s conduct has been disgraceful.

The Friends of Hereford Lighthouse have put in many thousands of hours of their own time working for the benefit of the city, the state and the public that so enjoys the historic site and gardens.

Yet Rosenello didn’t even acknowledge their effort before making dubious claims against them. What an ingrate. Remind us never to do volunteer work in North Wildwood while he’s still mayor.

And about those claims. Publicly accusing someone of planning to loot a state-owned facility sounds slanderous, absent any formal charges or evidence of prior theft. So far Rosenello hasn’t offered anything close to justifying such an accusation.

And as far as the attack on Murray, we invite Rosenello to make public the documentation of the complaints, including the names of those complaining, that would be the minimum requirement for using them to justify a public attack on the lighthouse’s benefactors.

North Wildwood is terminating the Friends of Hereford Lighthouse operating contract as of Jan. 1. City taxpayers might look into whether the mayor wants to hire people to do work formerly done by volunteers. He has already hired someone to take an inventory of the place.

The nonprofit group has mounted a campaign to get the DEP to consider leasing the lighthouse directly to them so they can continue to operate and care for it.

Without knowing the finances involved, we can’t suggest what’s best.

But the lighthouse and its gardens belong to all New Jersey residents, and the DEP and its Historic Preservation Office must get involved to ensure their interests are represented, given the mayor’s disturbing behavior.

As the owner of Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, the department has the power and responsibility to reach the reasonable settlement of this dispute that the city does not even seem to want. And such a settlement better result in no diminishment of this historic site loved by many.

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