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Atlantic City Executive Council may open meetings to media

ATLANTIC CITY — The newly formed Executive Council operates behind closed doors, but several members are open to the possibility of allowing media coverage for the sake of public transparency.

Following the second monthly meeting Tuesday of the Atlantic City Executive Council, when reporters were barred from even entering the seventh floor of City Hall where the meeting was held, as per orders from the Mayor's Office, a handful of participants said they would consider opening the closed sessions to the media.

"The things that are discussed, if people heard about it, they would be encouraged," said 3rd Ward Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, who was present at Tuesday's meeting in his capacity as president of the Atlantic City chapter of the NAACP. "I think it’s important. Really now, because I think it’s important that people have confidence in Atlantic City. And there’s good things happening. It’s a good group, it’s a good effort, and (the media) need(s) to be involved.”

Atlantic City report

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who also serves as commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs, which has direct oversight of the city's day-to-day operations, said the council was not created legislatively and cannot act statutorily. Since the advisory council does not vote on public matters or spend taxpayer money, it is not subject to the state's Open Public Meetings Act, or Sunshine Law.  

An agenda from Tuesday's meeting listed discussions regarding health, education, public safety, development and employment.

Shabazz said he could understand not opening the meetings up to the public because of space — the meetings take place in the mayor's conference room on the seventh floor of City Hall — but believed it would be beneficial to both the city and the goals of the council to allow reporters to attend.

"It’s my opinion that the media should be in there," he said.

The council was created based on a recommendation in the state's transition report for returning the city to local control.

The report was co-authored by Special Counsel Jim Johnson, who was appointed to the position by Gov. Phil Murphy for the express purpose of crafting a blueprint for the city's future success.

Johnson's report noted the need for openness in that effort and specifically cites "transparency and accountability" in a section concerning the creation of the Executive Council. The purpose of the Executive Council is to provide a structure for local collaboration between government, private and philanthropic institutions and to administer elements of the city’s revitalization efforts, according to the state Department of Community Affairs.

DCA Deputy Commissioner Rob Long said the idea of opening the Executive Council meetings to media has "not been discussed," but that he would "certainly bring it up."

"We haven't explicitly discussed (opening the meetings to reporters), but it's probably something we should just kick around," Johnson said following Tuesday's meeting. "There's always a balance to be struck when you're trying to figure out issues, particularly when you're trying to pull together a team to get a level of comfort ... but obviously we're exercising a public function and we're going to have to strike a balance between team-building and trying to keep the conversations going and candid and having them public. So, it's definitely something we'll consider."

On Thursday, Murphy signed an executive order creating a second advisory group that was recommended in Johnson's report, the Atlantic City Coordinating Council. The Coordinating Council, also chaired by Oliver, will look at issues related to Atlantic City’s economic development, public safety and public heath, among others.

Neither the Executive Council or the Coordinating Council supersedes the authority of the City Council or the Executive Board of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which has zoning and land-use control of the city's Tourism District. 

The next meeting of the Atlantic City Executive Council will be in December, but a date has yet to be determined. The council will draft quarterly reports of its discussions and recommendations. Beginning in 2019, the council will meet quarterly as opposed to monthly.

Friday nights are about more than just football

Stephanie Masciulli shares something in common with the football players she cheers for Friday nights in the fall.

Most of the players began their football careers between the ages of 5 and 7. The Holy Spirit High School senior started cheerleading at the same time.

“Just like them, it’s something that I love to do,” said Masciulli, 18, of Egg Harbor Township. “I have such a passion for it. It just means a lot to me.”

The focus is on blocking, tackling and touchdowns Friday nights and Saturday afternoons during the high school football season. But high school cheerleaders and bands put just as much time and preparation into what they do as the players on the field.

GALLERY: Mainland Marching Band

On Friday nights, The Holy Spirit cheerleaders are on the sidelines right next to the players. They lead the crowd in cheers of “Defense!” and “Block that kick!”

Bands are a big part of the atmosphere at games. The Millville band plays the school’s Fight Song after a Thunderbolt touchdown. The band entertains the crowd with a number of songs, including “Uptown Funk” and “Gangnam Style.” The band is quiet when Millville has the ball but plays loud and long when the opposing offense is on the field to make it hard for it to hear its signals.

Colleges offer cheerleading scholarships, just like football. Some cheerleaders even put together their own highlight videos to attract the attention of college coaches. The highlights show the cheerleaders’ best dance steps and acrobatic stunts.

“Everyone says cheerleading is not a sport,” said Spirit senior cheerleader and Brigantine resident Shelby Kott. “But when we perform, we’re putting so much effort and work into it when we’re lifting the girls, dancing, cheering, jumping.”

GALLERY: Pleasantville Marching Band

The cheerleaders are judged on their cheers, their jumps and tumbles, their emotions, how loud they are and the precision of their dance steps.

“It’s their overall showmanship,” said Spirit cheerleading coach Rachael Hamby, “and how entertaining the overall routine is.”

But football teams, cheerleaders and band musicians have several things in common, including practice and preseason camps.

The Holy Spirit cheerleaders, just like the football team, have a preseason camp, where they practice five to six hours a day for a week straight.

Meanwhile, the Millville band, which features 105 students, holds two mini-camps in July. Those camps are just to prepare for the main preseason camp, a 10-day affair in the sweltering heat and humidity of August where they practice from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.

PHOTOS: Millville cheerleaders' performance, Nov. 10, 2018

The band practices in 30-minute spurts and then takes a water break. Band parents supply Rita’s Water Ice, and everyone wears sunscreen and sunglasses.

“It’s a pretty long week,” said Millville band director Rob DeSantis. “But that’s where we teach (the halftime) show, and we all learn all the drills and everything we need for the season. I know when new parents come in they sometimes say, ‘Wow, I’m surprised how hard these kids are working.’”

Once the season starts, the Spirit cheerleaders practice two days a week. On Thursdays before a Friday game, they join the football team for a pasta dinner.

During the season, the Millville band practices Tuesday and Thursday, plays at a Friday game and then plays in a competition Saturday.

“Aside from supporting the team, that’s what marching bands were invented to do — be at football games,” DeSantis said. “We use the games as dry runs for our Saturday night competitions.”

Cheerleaders and musicians know there’s a difference between what they do on Friday nights to support their teams and competitions. Their main job on Friday nights is to get the crowd going.

“I like cheering at the games,” said Kott, 17. “We’re on the sidelines. We’re into the game. At the competition, it’s all on us. We’re the ones competing to win.”

Gallery: Cedar Creek Cheerleaders

The pressure before a competition can be every bit as intense as the nerves before a big game.

“Everyone is watching you,” Masciulli said. “You have to make sure you’re doing your best. You have to perform just like the football players.”

At first glance, a cheerleading dance routine or band halftime show may not have much in common with an off-tackle run.

But Holy Spirit standout running back Elijah Gray must trust his teammates to block for him, while Masciulli must trust her teammates to keep her safe as they lift her into the air during stunts.

“I do get afraid sometimes,” Masciulli said. “But you have to trust who’s lifting up. You have to have trust in yourself, too.”

Band directors and football and cheerleading coaches preach the same message: the value of teamwork and banding together to achieve a goal.

“The way we teach is similar,” DeSantis said. “We’re cogs in a wheel. If one is missing, then we struggle. They’re team-oriented activities. We preach to the kids, ‘You are part of a bigger picture.’ There’s a lot of similarities. The vehicle we’re using (to teach) is different.”

The high school football season is drawing to an end. Thanksgiving rivalry games will be played this week. Holy Spirit will meet St. Joseph for the state Non-Public II championship on ether Nov. 30 or Dec. 1 at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford.

The Holy Spirit cheerleaders now have an opportunity to display their talents in an NFL setting.

“It’s so exciting for the girls to be on that huge field cheering on the boys at the (state championship),” Hamby said. “They were all talking about it nonstop all weekend.”

Just like the players, the cheerleaders and the musicians want to be at their best on the biggest stage.

Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

Millville’s band performs during the school’s game against Timber Creek in October. In addition to playing during the game and at halftime, many high school bands also take part in competitions on Saturdays against other schools.