In the shadow of a national scandal — and with the September pageant fast approaching — strife has hit the Miss America Organization once again.
A divide has emerged within the Miss America Organization between state pageant officials and former winners over its current leadership.
Representatives from 22 state pageants, including New Jersey, have signed a petition calling for the immediate resignations of the entire Miss America Organization Board of Trustees, including Chairwoman Gretchen Carlson and President and CEO Regina Hopper.
Meanwhile, another letter, provided to The Press of Atlantic City on Saturday and signed by 30 former Miss Americas, said they “fully support Gretchen Carlson, Debbye Turner, Heather French Henry and our unified board who are and have been working tirelessly to move our program forward. We hope that the voices of our majority can and will be heard.”
The petition expresses a vote of “no confidence” in the MAO’s Board of Trustees and Hopper, citing a lack of transparency and adherence to best practices.
“As dedicated members of our state and local communities who lend our reputations, financial support and voluntary efforts to facilitate MAO’s long and powerful mission of empowering women to stand up and speak out, we find ourselves needing to use our own voices of leadership to express our profound disappointment regarding what, in our view, is the failed leadership of the entire MAO Board of Trustees led by Ms. Gretchen Carlson as its chair and Ms. Regina Hopper as its President and CEO,” said a petition circulated online and provided to The Press.
Sally Johnston, executive director of the Miss New Jersey Education Foundation, is listed as signing the petition. She could not be reached for comment Friday night.
Miss America CEO and President Regina Hopper acknowledged the opposition in a phone interview Friday night.
“On behalf of the Miss America Organization, in any transition, there are are always those who disagree with or find it hard to accept change. We welcome those who want to move forward and be a part of a revitalized program dedicated to providing scholarships and opportunities to all young women,” she said.
The Miss Georgia pageant, which was one of the states to sign, posted the petition on its Facebook page with a lengthy response: “We are constantly forced to decide whether to stay quiet in the face of organizational dysfunction, because we have collectively dedicated hundreds of years of service to the program. We love the ways in which we have seen Miss America impact the lives of the women of our program. We do not want to be ostracized.”
The new leadership of the Miss America Organization has gone through several changes recently. In June, MAO announced the election of three new board members, following the resignations of Jennifer Vaden Barth and Valerie Crooker Clemens. Both Barth and Clemens were former state titleholders, representing the Miss America State Title Holders Association since February.
In the shadow of a national scandal — and with the September pageant fast approaching — strife has hit the Miss America Organization once again.
According to Carlson, it was explained to state pageant directors and former state titleholders that Barth’s and Clemens’ positions on the board were always temporary and both signed letters of resignation when they were seated. The two would then step down from the board after the launch of the “Miss America 2.0” initiative.
Barth disputed that, taking to social media and releasing a joint statement with Clemens saying their resignation letters were executed without their knowledge or consent and with no advance warning.
In the days following, board members and former Miss Americas Kate Shindle and Laura Kaeppler Fleiss also resigned, calling for those invested in the Miss America Organization to question the leadership.
Suzette Charles, Miss America 1984 and current MAO liaison to Atlantic City, said she can only speak for herself, but she has noticed issues arising within the organization.
“Things have started to unravel,” Charles said Friday night. “There’s been a lot of dismay with Gretchen’s leadership. We thought she would regard this program with reverence and keep this tradition alive.”
Charles was unsure whether the new petition would have the same momentum as the one that led to the resignations of the previous leadership, but she supports the states that have signed.
“The local and state level are the community that brings the whole swell of the competition here to Atlantic City. So if there’s discourse and you don’t have participants, then how will you move forward?”
What Kathy Morse remembers most from her years in jail and prison is that she missed her children.
The mother of three from Point Pleasant Beach, Ocean County, recalls using toothpaste to make a picture of her children stick to the wall of her jail cell. She said she still struggles to forgive herself for being away from her children in 1991, in 2006 and 2007 and from 2009 to 2014.
“It was absolutely devastating. The amount of guilt was so overwhelming and continues to be to this day,” said Morse, 58, who was incarcerated for grand larceny. “It was just totally overwhelming. This guilt, I was drowning in it.”
Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women in the United States increased more than 700 percent, rising from from a total of 26,378 in 1980 to 222,061 in 2014, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in Washington, D.C.
There are about 41,000 men and women held in prisons and jails across New Jersey, at a cost of about $54,000 each per year. After they are released, about a third wind up back in prison within a few years.
New Jersey has one of the lowest female incarceration rates in the nation, at 22 women inmates per 100,000 people. The only states with lower rates are Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, according to sentencingproject.org.
Last year, Democratic U.S. Sens. Cory Booker if New Jersey, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Richard Durbin of Illinois introduced the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, a bill that would address prison conditions on the federal level.
The bill was drafted with the help of women who had been in prison, with federal lawmakers and advocates weighing in from across the country.
Meanwhile, in New Jersey, Assemblywoman Yvonne Lopez, D-Middlesex, has sponsored a bill that looks to lessen some of the trauma families experience when mothers receive a jail or prison sentence.
Provisions include providing parenting classes to inmates and their children; creating an overnight pilot program for inmates and their children; and prohibiting restrictions on the number of children allowed to visit an inmate.
Gale Muhammed, founder and president of the prison reform advocacy organization Women Who Never Give Up, partners with Second Baptist Church in Atlantic City to work with Atlantic County women who were formerly incarcerated.
People now know mass incarceration is a problem, but less thought is given to children who miss their mothers, who are usually the primary caregivers, when they are locked up, Muhammed said.
“Once the absentee parent has left the home, those children suffer from trauma, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder,” Muhammed said.
More than 60 percent of women in state prisons have a child younger than 18, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Morse, too ashamed to tell her youngest child, now 13, that she was behind bars, made an excuse that she wasn’t at home because she was at “the hospital.” That backfired on Morse, because when her daughter became sick, she didn’t want to see a doctor and was afraid she would be taken to “the hospital” and not be able to come home, like her mother.
In a state facility, Morse said, she was allowed one 15-minute phone call per day. Some days she did not talk to her children at all because no one answered the phone.
Aloncita Brookens, 52, of Atlantic City, can sympathize.
For almost 20 years, heroin addiction hooked Brookens mentally and physically.
Brookens battled heroin addiction from about 1994 to 2015. She was placed at least two dozen times in the Atlantic County jail in Mays Landing and did one stint in prison at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Clinton, Hunterdon County — the state’s only women’s prison.
Brookens’ first offense was for heroin possession, but subsequent arrests were for shoplifting to buy drugs.
During one of Brookens’ jail stints, she was pregnant and going through withdrawal. Methadone saved her and her baby’s life, she said.
Brookens never lost custody of her children, unlike some incarcerated mothers.
“When I had my oldest son, when he was born, I was locked up. When I got locked up, I went to the Atlantic County Justice Facility. I’m grateful because my grandmother was there. She had my son brought to her in Oklahoma. She took care of him while I was locked up. Mind you, my grandmother was in her 80s,” Brookens said.
In 1994, Brookens’ grandmother took care of the one child she had when she went away for the first time at age 24.
Brookens’ husband, former professional junior welterweight Johnny Jones, of Atlantic City, took care of her children, now ranging in age from 24 to 11, during her subsequent arrests.
Morse didn’t lose custody of her children either — but that doesn’t mean her children were not hurt or damaged by the experience of her being away, which included a stint in Rikers Island in New York.
Morse’s two oldest children, now men ages 31 and 30, no longer speak to her.
Her 13-year-old daughter was 9 when she was released from prison most recently. The mothers of her daughter’s friends Googled Morse’s name. After that, they wouldn’t let their daughters play with Morse’s daughter, she said.
When Morse was released from prison the last time, after four years away, she felt like an outsider in her own home. Her husband and daughter were like best friends, and she felt like she was an interloper even though she stayed in contact and wrote a letter to her daughter every day, she said.
“They had this routine, and after four years (out of prison), I still feel that way sometimes,” Morse said. “My daughter has abandonment issues because of what happened. You don’t realize how you being incarcerated is going to impact your children. ... There is this fallout that continues.”
During Morse’s last four-year stint, she missed out on birthday parties and Christmases.
“You can’t get that back, regardless of what you do. You can’t make up for that lost time,” Morse said.
Brookens was numb from her drug use for most of time she was incarcerated and didn’t realize the impact she was having on her children.
By the middle of this decade, she had spent a couple of years out of jail with her five children, now ranging in age from 24 to 11, and was no longer desensitized.
Her last stint in jail was eight months on an old charge in 2015. It was the most painful of all her incarcerations.
“I’m thinking about me as a mother. How is this going to look to (my children)? That was like a wake-up call to me,” Brookens said. “You’ve got children. You are a mother. You are not just an addict running around here doing this and doing that no more. You’ve got a family. Come on. You’ve got to get it together. I had to change my life, get some things on the ball.”
A flood insurance program heavily subsidized by taxpayers and $25 billion in debt will end July 31 if not reauthorized by Congress.
Reauthorization is a chance for lawmakers to save the program by changing it — either by drastically cutting costs or increasing revenue.
But in the past year, Congress has handled several other deadlines by extending the existing National Flood Insurance Program for a few months at a time.
The program provides insurance for a quarter-million New Jersey property owners, and 5 million nationally. If it were to lapse, those policies would stay in effect, but wouldn’t renew and new ones wouldn’t be issued.
I sat down with Michelle Brunetti Post to talk about our year long series into coastal flooding in South Jersey, Rising Waters. This is the first installment of the audio feed. Listen here.
The dilemma over the program illustrates how the rising costs of flood insurance, triggered by more flooding incidents and more powerful storms, are prompting examinations of the cost of living near the water.
In some communities in Florida, higher flood risks have led to higher insurance and lower sales prices. That hasn’t happened here, but there is growing support to charge homeowners premiums that cover costs of the program.
“The program was solvent until Katrina. That’s what put it under,” said Edward J. Mahaney Jr. of Mahaney Consulting in Cape May. “The chance to get back was wiped out by Sandy.”
Scientists say sea-level rise and a warming ocean have made storms and floods more damaging.
Mahaney, a former Cape May mayor, was until recently the strategic planner for the New Jersey Coastal Coalition, a group of towns working together to create more flood-resistant communities through preparation, innovation and education. The group touts the benefits of its work as lower insurance costs for towns and property owners.
Ocean City tops the list of New Jersey coastal towns with large numbers of properties projected to face chronic high-tide flooding by 2045, undermining real estate values and tax ratables, according to a new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The NFIP is in the red, even though Congress forgave $16 billion of debt last year. That debt forgiveness came at a cost to taxpayers, who will have to cover the deficit.
Lawmakers in favor of increasing premiums, including those who supported a five-year reauthorization bill last November called the 21st Century Flood Reform Act in the House, say people should know the true cost of living so close to the water. Keeping costs artificially low only encourages development in high-risk areas, they say.
U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd, however, opposed the act, saying it increased premiums too much, restricted help for owners of repetitive-loss properties and was bad for New Jersey homeowners who were still recovering from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
That reform bill has not moved in the Senate.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has a bill, S1368, to reauthorize the program that would save the program money by cutting administrative fees paid to private insurance companies, said Senior Policy Adviser Jason Tuber.
Currently they get $31 of every $100 premium dollars.
“The senator is confident there is not going to be a lapse, but he is not going to let an artificial deadline pressure us into accepting a bad deal for New Jersey,” said Tuber.
In New Jersey, 226,115 flood insurance policies were in force as of March, with $56.6 billion of insurance coverage, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Premiums totaled $220.2 million, for an average premium cost of about $974 per year.
Should the NFIP lapse, which has never happened since its inception in 1968, FEMA would still pay valid claims. But it would stop selling and renewing policies, according to FEMA.
A notice on the FEMA website said a lapse could affect 40,000 home-sale closings per month nationwide.
Properties with federally regulated or insured mortgages in flood-prone areas are required to have federal flood insurance, so sales may come to a standstill if the policies can’t be purchased.
Premiums on the 5 million policies nationwide are about half of what the private market would charge, and about a third of what it would charge in high-risk communities, according to a 2011 report by the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America.
That is partly because the NFIP does not factor into premiums the expected cost of wave damage from storm surges, says a report by the Congressional Budget Office. And partly because of subsidies.
The polar ice cap is melting, our ocean is expanding and New Jersey is sinking.
There have been some efforts to begin phasing out subsidies, required by a 2012 federal law called the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act. But a 2014 federal law called the Homeowner Flood Insurance Affordability Act rolled back some of those changes.
In April, the NFIP issued a record of decision, saying it would begin phasing out subsidies on some pre-Flood Insurance Rate Map properties by increasing premiums up to 25 percent per year, said Mahaney.
Pre-FIRM properties were those built before flood maps were available, which happened for most communities in the 1970s or 1980s. Due to be cut the most are subsidies for policies on second homes, businesses and repetitive-loss properties. NFIP will also phase out subsidies on primary residence pre-FIRM properties through annual increases of up to 18 percent, and create a monthly installment plan payment option.