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Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

Drue Nicholas, St. Augustine Prep competing in the 16th Annual Garden State Cup high school golf tournament at Blue Heron Pines Golf Course Monday April 8, 2019. Press of Atlantic City / Edward Lea Staff Photographer

State attorney general questions Cape sheriff’s new agreement with ICE

CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The New Jersey Attorney General’s Office is accusing Cape May County officials of renewing an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement without the state’s knowledge.

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal sought to sharply curtail the agreements, imposing new requirements on their implementation and renewal. In a July 6 letter to county Sheriff Robert Nolan, Veronica Allende, director of the attorney general’s Criminal Justice Division, said the county failed to meet the new requirements needed to renew the agreement.

She also accused the county of renewing the pact without alerting the state.

AG letter to Cape May County Sheriff

“At no point during this process did you or a member of your office contact the attorney general or his staff to discuss any aspect of the Immigrant Trust Directive or the supplemental memorandum of April 30, 2019,” the letter states.

Nolan did not respond to requests for comment. Other county officials said any comment on the matter would have to come from Nolan.

Allende wrote that she learned only last week of the renewal, after a reporter sought confirmation.

“The fact that no one in your office ever notified the Attorney General’s Office of its February 2019 renewal suggests that you deliberately declined to disclose this information over the past five months,” she said.

Known as a 287(g) agreement, the program allows designated local officers to perform the functions of ICE officers. It also offers training and supervision. In Cape May County, three officers with the Sheriff’s Office assigned to the county jail participate in the program under the current agreement.

Grewal plans to issue a directive Aug. 6 prohibiting Cape May County officers from exercising their law-enforcement authority in connection with the agreement unless the department adheres to the current state policy, Allende states.

Attorney General guidelines on ICE

In November, Grewal issued a statewide directive limiting the voluntary assistance local and county law enforcement can provide to immigration authorities, including ICE. Calling it the “Immigrant Trust Directive,” it prevented cooperation with ICE except under limited circumstances.

At the time, he said people are far less likely to report a crime to police if they fear the officer may turn them over to federal immigration authorities.

On April 30, Grewal outlined the extensive process any law-enforcement agency would need to undertake to enter or renew a 287(g) agreement. That included submitting a statement of why the agreement was justified and an analysis of the impact the agreement would have on law enforcement’s relationship with the immigrant communities.

According to state officials, Cape May County did not meet any of those requirements.

Allende wrote that there needs to be a clear distinction between state, county and local law-enforcement officers and the federal authorities enforcing civil immigration law.

“The problem with 287(g) agreements is that they blur this distinction,” reads Allende’s letter.

After then-Sheriff Gary Schaffer applied to enter the 287(g) agreement in 2016, he said the program would cover the cost of training for three officers. He said sheriff’s officers are stationed at the county jail and would only come in contact with those who have been taken to the facility after being accused of a crime.

The ICE website states the 287(g) program dates to 1996.

Cape May/ICE agreement

“The 287(g) program continues to receive overwhelmingly positive feedback from its partners,” the site reads. “The mutually beneficial agreements allow state and local officers to act as a force multiplier in the identification, arrest and service of warrants and detainers of incarcerated foreign-born individuals with criminal charges or convictions.”

Some county residents opposed the agreement. They argued the program drove a wedge between law-enforcement agencies and already vulnerable immigrant communities. Opponents packed county freeholder meetings in March 2017, arguing against participation.

A copy of the agreement with Cape May County posted on the ICE website indicates it was set to expire June 30. In the days surrounding the Fourth of July, little information was available on what would happen next with the program. In response to a request for comment, officials with ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations in Newark stated: “The contract with Cape May is still active.”

Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for Grewal’s office, seemed to contradict ICE’s assertion that the contract remains active. He wrote that there were three 287(g) agreements signed throughout New Jersey, in Monmouth, Salem and Cape May counties, and all expired June 30.

“We did not receive any requests for renewal or extension of those three existing 287(g) agreements,” he wrote in an email, also sent July 3.

He also sent a copy of an April 30 memorandum from Grewal to all law-enforcement chief executives in the state, outlining the procedures to enter a 287(g) contract.

“The Attorney General’s Office has not received any requests from other agencies. We do not have any further comment,” Aseltine wrote. His office later released the July 6 letter. A similar letter also went to Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden.

Street closing continues after Saturday fire in Ventnor

VENTNOR — The sound of construction material crunching under the weight of steel claws could be heard Tuesday morning along Ventnor Avenue as residents and visitors stopped to catch a glimpse of the demolition of a building destroyed in a three-alarm blaze Saturday.

Inside Agnes Café at Newport Avenue, customers chatted with owner Agnes Ritzel about the fire and the demolition that closed the block between her breakfast shop and New Haven Avenue. The owners, and many others along the avenue, said the closing of the street due to the fire and demolition came at the worst time, Fourth of July weekend.

“Thirty percent drop in business Saturday, at least,” co-owner Tom Ritzel said. “That was a bad day, considering how good Thursday and Friday were.”

Agnes said the street closing again Tuesday was not as bad, since it did not extend in front of the business and customers could drive by and find parking.

See photos from the Ventnor house fire demolition

No one was injured in the blaze that began in the early morning hours Saturday at the three-story brick building. One of the residents of the building, Michelle Murphy, was alerted to the fire by her dog, Nucki, and was able to escape. Fire Chief Mike Cahill said another resident lived in an apartment in the back side of the first floor but was not home at the time. Two businesses occupied the storefronts along Ventnor Avenue.

The building is owned by 139 N. Dorset LLC. A managing member of the LLC, DJ Gluck, said he is helping the businesses on the first floor, a contractor and a therapist, to relocate.

Gluck said he is still weighing options on what to do next with the property after the demolition. He thanked Ventnor’s first responders and emergency officials.

“We’re extremely happy that no one was hurt or injured during the fire or the cleanup,” he said.

On Tuesday, the businesses next to the demolished site were closed, including Shellem’s Surf Shack, Ventnor Chiropractic Center, Paw Purrazzi Dog Grooming, Shalom Pita and Quest Diagnostics.

Businesses that did open were upset about the lost revenue from the holiday weekend due to street closings.

“Business is very low because nobody is passing by now,” said Shanti Parekh, owner of Bloom’s Liquor at Ventnor and Newport avenues. “Weekends are important because of visitors.”

“What a fiasco here on Saturday,” said stylist Anita Cohen of Antonio’s Hair Design.

She said customers had to cancel appointments because they couldn’t get to the shop on what was an otherwise busy holiday weekend for Ventnor.

“No one can park here, so it’s a problem,” said Peggy Milhan of Bendix Cleaners, next door to the salon.

Cahill said the city is keeping in mind the concerns of the businesses and trying to expedite the cleanup at the property.

“It’s a difficult site to get to because you can only get to it from the front,” he said. “Safety has to come first.”

He said the fire could have been much worse.

“The property where it was … I can’t praise the efforts of the firefighting crews that were on scene (enough). If that wind was blowing the other way, we had the potential to have a much greater fire than we had,” Cahill said.

On Tuesday, only pieces of wood and brick could be made out in the debris pile of the former structure. Police cars blocked the street ends at Newport and New Haven avenues about 9:30 a.m.

Cahill said investigators are working with police and still trying to determine the cause of the fire. He estimated the demolition, which began Saturday, would be complete by Wednesday.

The fire is believed to have begun in the rear of the structure on the lower floors, Cahill said.

The extent of the damage to the building necessitated swift action in bringing it down, he said.

“The upper floors were leaning to the point where we were afraid they were going to fall,” Cahill said.

PHOTOS from Saturday's fire in Ventnor

Gardner's Basin has potential to be Atlantic City's 'jewel' once again

ATLANTIC CITY — It was not too long ago that Gardner’s Basin was flourishing, said Gregory Wood, owner of Fish Heads, a seafood and sandwich shop that overlooks the water.

“Gardner’s Basin was thriving two seasons ago,” said the 57-year-old Atlantic City native who has been operating his food stand in the historic district since 1997.

Within the past year, several businesses have closed, relocated or have struggled to survive in Gardner’s Basin. An unsuccessful partnership with Somers Point-based developer Scarborough Properties began in 2017 and was terminated in late 2018. Gardner’s Basin was returned to the city’s control this year.

On Tuesday, City Council adopted an ordinance to formalize the annual fee schedule for amenities and attractions in the basin. During the special meeting, city officials suggested a new partnership to enhance the area’s offerings could be in the works, specifically at the Atlantic City Aquarium.

“I think that now that it’s back in the city’s hands that we’ll be able to form a better partnership and craft a vision for what we all want, and need, Gardner’s Basin to be,” said Council President Marty Small Sr. “There’s a lot of potential now, but we have to continue the momentum of Gardner’s Basin from the summer over to the fall and winter months as well. And the way you do that is build quality attractions that people want to come patronize.”

With the aquarium as an anchor attraction, and several resilient vendors, including Back Bay Ale House, Atlantic City Cruises, Gilchrist Restaurant and Highroller Fishing, Wood believes Gardner’s Basin can, once again, be a jewel. But city officials need to communicate with the state, which has fiscal oversight of Atlantic City following the 2016 takeover, to make it happen, he said.

Gardner’s Basin, once a haven for rum runners and commercial fishing fleets, became a public attraction in the 1970s after the city received grant money from the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Green Acres program and the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund. That funding was tied to environmental restrictions, which officials and developers say have stifled growth in the area.

Council Vice President Aaron “Sporty” Randolph, who represents the city’s 1st Ward in which Gardner’s Basin is located, said Atlantic City is looking at what has been done at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor as a model, albeit on a smaller scale.

“We just got it back in our hands, so, to get it up and running and get people back in there, that’s what we want for right now,” Randolph said.

Randolph went on to say that Gardner’s Basin is a “jewel” that needs to be updated. He was confident a continued collaboration between council, the Mayor’s Office and the state Department of Community Affairs — which has direct oversight of the city — would produce results for the area.

DCA Deputy Commissioner Rob Long said the potential of Gardner’s Basin is something “everybody recognizes,” and officials would continue working together to improve it.

Brondon Smith, 36, of Somers Point, was preparing to cast his line into the water at the William “Bill” Demones Jr. Atlantic City Seawall Fishing Complex in Gardner’s Basin on Tuesday morning when he offered some suggestions. Smith, who has been fishing at Gardner’s Basin for nearly a decade, said the area “could be cleaned up a bit,” but noted it is currently “better than it was,” even a year ago.

Smith also said he would like to see an extended fishing pier at Gardner’s Basin to make it more welcoming for anglers.

“It’s hard to fish sometimes because of all the boats,” he said. “I’ve lost fish a couple of times because of boats.”

Capitalizing on Gardner’s Basin natural assets, such as aquatic recreation, should go hand in hand with offering more reasons for people to visit, such as live entertainment and festivals, Wood said.

“At a time when the city is looking to generate revenue, this is a place that can do that,” Wood said. “We have to stop being scared of the state and tell them what we want.”

clowe-pressofac / Claire Lowe / Staff Writer  

Ventnor police block the street Tuesday in front of the building being demolished as a result of a three-alarm fire Saturday.

Sea Isle Police Chief: No danger to public as fire chiefs worked without certification

Sea Isle City — The city's fire chief and his two assistants have stepped down after a state-led investigation found they lacked needed certifications to be in a leadership position, according to the state Department of Community Affairs.

The DCA's Division of Fire Safety investigation, prompted by several large fires and an anonymous complaint, found the officials — Chief Frank Edwardi, Sr., and his two assistant chiefs, Mike Ryan and Mike Tighe —  lacked the proper certifications for "incident command," said DCA spokesperson Tammori Petty.

The three men resigned two weeks ago. Their replacements have proper certifications, Petty said.

In a press release Tuesday, Police Chief Thomas McQuillen said residents were never in danger.

"At no time was there any threat to public safety while this certification process was taking place," he wrote.

McQuillen said that during the review of the department's response to an Easter morning fire, it was discovered that many of their volunteers did not have properly updated certifications. 

The fire broke out at 5:05 a.m., with smoke billowing from the rear of a duplex. A firefighter suffered minor injuries four residential units were destroyed.

Some of the firefighters not certified had previously held leadership positions, said McQuillen, who did not mention them by name.

The city and fire department then worked to get the proper training and documents. 

Arrangements were made with two neighboring departments "to ensure the City had proper supervision at fire scenes" while the certification process was finished. 

On Monday, Fire President Pete Pittaluga said Edwardi, Sr., retired a few months ago for health reasons. Pittaluga told The Press of Atlantic City Monday that was the first he'd heard about leadership being removed.

"Everything we do in the fire company is about the people and their property," Pittaluga said. "I think the company has done a good job."

The move comes as many Sea Isle residents continue to push for full-time firefighters and have voiced concerns over response times.

In November, an 89-year-old woman died in a fire that damaged three duplexes. A fire in June in the city's Fish Alley district, caused by an equipment malfunction, spread from a shed to a fuel tank and a commercial fishing boat in the water, sending two people to the hospital for minor injuries and damaging three buildings. 

McQuillen said, as of June 27, 33 of the department's volunteers are certified with the Division of Fire Safety, and eight are certified in "incident control" and can hold 

The DCA's Division of Fire Safety continues to monitor the transition to new leadership, Petty said.

"The Division is working with the fire department to bring all individuals into compliance and helping them with issuing additional certifications for some of their firefighters," Petty said.

The Associated Press and staff reporter David Danzis and Claire Lowe contributed to this report.