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Charles Krupa / Associated Press  

Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, left, shakes hands with former Vice President Joe Biden on either side of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on Friday before the start of a Democratic presidential primary debate at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire.

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Sea Isle improves dispatch practices after string of destructive fires

SEA ISLE CITY — After a number of destructive fires in 2019 brought scrutiny from state overseers and demands for answers from residents, the city updated its decades-old dispatching practices.

The city now dispatches firefighters, police and EMS simultaneously when a report of a fire on the island comes in, police Chief Thomas McQuillen said in a recent interview. McQuillen oversees the Sea Isle City Volunteer Fire Department in his role as public safety director.

In October, a Press of Atlantic City review of city dispatch records and interviews with a former fire chief revealed the city had been sending police to scenes first to confirm the need for firefighting services, leading to costly response times. City officials had not publicly announced the changes, which The Press learned of during reporting for a follow-up article.

A purchase order obtained through an Open Public Records Act request shows the city ordered yearlong subscriptions for first responders to the app Who’s Responding? in July. Subscriptions, equipment and a setup fee totaled $1,800 paid to M.A.S.E. Concepts of Egg Harbor Township. A Police Department special order, also obtained through a public records request, states explicitly, “All Fire calls will be dispatched to Police, Fire and EMS simultaneously,” and had an effective date of Nov. 21.

Mazurie elected new Sea Isle City fire chief

SEA ISLE CITY — John Mazurie Jr., son of longtime fire chief John Mazurie Sr., was elected permanent chief of the Sea Isle City Volunteer Fire Department in a November election, according to City Council members.

“We’re always looking to find the best ways to do things ... so in our continual evaluations of how we operate, we tweak them and tweak them and tweak them until we think they’re as good as they’re gonna get,” McQuillen said. “And we think that’s where we’re at at this point.”

The new dispatch system, however, doesn’t solve other issues within the department. On Nov. 29, according to dispatch records obtained through a public records request, two tones sent out for an activated carbon monoxide detector went unanswered by the Fire Department. Eventually, an engine on the way to the scene requested mutual aid from Strathmere because there were only two firefighters available.

Several incidents last year exposed dispatching issues. Over Memorial Day weekend, a fire that started in Janice Pantano’s car engine spread to her summer home in the 19 minutes it took for the Fire Department to start spraying water. A Press review of fire reports and dispatch records found that, though police were on the scene in moments, it took six minutes before a dispatch signal was sent to fire crews. A review of dispatch records between January 2018 and July 2019 showed firefighters were not called out to fire scenes, on average, until 4 minutes and 24 seconds after the initial 911 call.

A tort claim, or notice of intent to sue, was filed on behalf of Pantano in September with Qual-Lynx, the third party claims administrator for the Atlantic County Municipal Joint Insurance Fund, of which Sea Isle is a member. In a questionnaire for the notice, Pantano said the damage to her home and car was caused by “the fire department’s very slow response which was below the standard of care.”

Former fire chief Frank Edwardi Sr. — who spent 46 years as a firefighter in Sea Isle and was forced to resign last June after a state inquiry found he and his two assistants did not have proper “incident command” training — said the practice of sending police first to visually confirm the presence of flames goes way back on the island. Former Assistant Chief Keith Larsen confirmed Edwardi’s assessment in a recent interview.

Edwardi, whose son is a city councilman, said he had long lobbied for a change in dispatch practices.

“People criticize the fire company for being late. Well, this is what we’re up against,” said Edwardi, 75, last year. “I said this a hundred times: Call us out. Who cares? You know, call us. ... you can always turn (the truck) around.”

Inconsistent dispatching is just one of a number of problems some firefighters in Sea Isle see as a drag on the quality of their service. The city, which has had a volunteer department since 1896, has seen a steady decline in volunteers, Edwardi said. The costliness of living on the island contributes to that, he said.

Pantano’s neighbor, Kevin Brennan, an accountant, said he did his own calculations and presented them to officials. He concluded Sea Isle could hire 21 firefighters to staff the firehouse in shifts around the clock for less than $2 million to support the existing Fire Department. In 2019, the city earmarked $114,900 for the Fire Department in 2019 and $3,649,450 for police.

The city is considering other changes to the department beyond dispatching practices, but McQuillen declined to go into detail.

“We’re looking at a couple different things ... but nothing that we’re prepared to publicly talk about,” he said. “I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, I guess.”

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A home on 54th Street in Sea Isle City burns in a November 2018 fire.

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Galloway Councilman Maldonado denies charges in recall petition

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — An effort is underway to collect about 6,500 signatures in the next 157 days to recall Councilman Robert Maldonado.

The recall campaign officially started Monday.

In a written response, Maldonado said negative campaigning surrounding the recall petition is what makes people on all sides disgusted by politics.

“The petition’s only purpose is to tarnish my reputation as a father, husband and a community leader. None of these allegations are true, and I have never personally benefited from my services to the township,” Maldonado wrote. “This petition is all about big-money benefit to Republicans.”

The statement of the recall committee said Maldonado “violated the public’s trust and oath of office to impartially and justly perform all duties as councilman in Galloway Township.”

Among other things, Maldonado is accused of:

Unprofessional conduct and abuse of power in using his position as councilman to have a street in his neighborhood paved without prior consent, approval or abstention, and a South Jersey Gas contractor install two improvements on his personal property for personal gain under public funding.

Abuse of power in requesting services for personal gain from a vendor to whom he awarded a public contract. This is based on the allegation that then township Engineer Vince Polistina did Maldonado a personal favor by arranging for the use of a limousine for Maldonado’s daughter’s wedding, Coleman said.

A violation of the Open Public Meetings Act in a scheme to award contracts for professional appointments with public funding. This is based on the allegation that Maldonado was involved in collusion in awarding professional contracts prior to the township’s Jan. 2 reorganization meeting, Coleman said.

The group organizing the effort has until July 19 to collect the valid signatures from township residents, based on there being about 27,000 registered voters in the township, said Christopher Coleman, one of the three leaders of the Committee to Recall Robert Maldonado.

Political fighting takes over Galloway council meeting

GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — The shift in mayors this month from Republican Anthony Coppola to Democrat Jim Gorman broke the township’s political factions into three camps, as exhibited by Tuesday’s Township Council meeting.

If the required number of signatures is collected, voters will decide whether to recall Maldonado in November. Without the recall, his term will end Dec. 31, 2021.

Maldonado, who was once a Democrat but was voted onto Township Council as a Republican, switched alliances last month during the township’s reorganization meeting.

He voted to make Democrats Jim Gorman and Mary Crawford mayor and deputy mayor, respectively, even though Republican Mayor Anthony Coppola and Deputy Mayor Rich Clute were just re-elected in November.

Coleman told the council and the public during Tuesday’s meeting he would be waiting after the meeting to give anyone who wanted to sign the petition a chance to do so.

Maldonado told about 200 people in the standing-room-only meeting he would not step down from council voluntarily.

Prior to the public comment portion of the meeting — which took about 90 minutes, compared with 15 minutes of official township business — Councilman Tony DiPietro entered a motion for the council to redo its reorganization. The measure was voted down along party lines for the second consecutive meeting.

The Republicans — Coppola, Clute and DiPietro — voted to hold the reorganization meeting again. The Democrats — Gorman, Crawford and Frank Santo — were joined by Maldonado in voting the measure down.

Charles J. Olson / for The Press  

Mainland boys win sixth straight sectional swimming title; story on B1

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Monitor researching who will represent Pleasantville BOE president in lawsuit, ethics charges

PLEASANTVILLE — The Board of Education on Tuesday night tabled a decision on whether the board attorney should represent President Carla Thomas in a recent lawsuit and ethics complaint against her.

At the meeting Tuesday, State Monitor J. Michael Rush asked the board to table further discussion until he gets legal guidance on the correct way to proceed.

Thomas could not be reached for comment Wednesday. She made no comments about the ethics charges or lawsuit Tuesday night.

The ethics complaint was brought by a teacher alleging Thomas publicly harassed her over her support for a school board candidate not favored by Thomas; and the lawsuit was brought by an insurance broker who alleges Thomas “falsely imputed fraudulent and/or criminal practices” to him in talking to other board members, preventing him from getting a district contract.

Board attorney James Carroll has submitted $4,500 in bills to the board for work he has already done on Curtis Lackland v. PBOE et als and Swezeny v. Thomas before the School Ethics Commission. Carroll said he was assigned the cases by interim Superintendent Dennis J. Anderson.

Carroll was assigned to handle the second count of the lawsuit, he said, which addresses Thomas’ alleged actions. In-house counsel Karyn White was assigned to handle the first count, alleging the school district did not provide insurance broker Lackland with information in a timely manner for participating in the bidding process for a district contract.

State Fiscal Monitor Constance J. Bauer, who was not in attendance, withheld payment to Carroll for the two cases via a Feb. 11 letter, until the board votes on representation.

“I believe it is in the public interest for the Board to take action to appoint counsel for matters that may involve an individual Board member,” Bauer wrote. “In these matters, I understand that neither of these issues is covered or represented by the District’s insurance carrier.”

While board of education members are indemnified under state law — entitled to having their legal defense paid for by the district when they are named in lawsuits directly related to board duties — it’s unclear whether the specifics of these cases would be covered.

According to a November/December 2008 article by attorney Susan Hodges in School Leader, the magazine of the New Jersey School Boards Association, there are limits to the kinds of behavior covered by the indemnification law.

Board members “are not entitled to those protections when they are sued for conduct which falls outside their clearly delineated duties,” the article states.

“Ms. Thomas falsely stated to at least another Board member that plaintiff had actually purchased a vehicle for another Board member,” the Lackland lawsuit said. It also said Thomas, at the Sept. 3 meeting, repeated in public “a complete falsehood” that his firm had previously billed for ghost employees.

A brief filed in the case said Carroll reviewed the tapes of the meetings and said the allegations are false.

The ethics complaint filed by teacher Susan M. Swezeny, of Egg Harbor Township, alleges Thomas harassed her on school property and made her feel threatened on Election Day 2019, over her support for a school board candidate supported by the Pleasantville Education Association.

Swezeny alleges Thomas was campaigning for three candidates supported by Thomas’ family members, Craig and David Callaway of Atlantic City — inappropriately calling them the Democratic school board candidates, since school board elections are nonpartisan.

Carroll, the board attorney, said he began working on the cases because there were deadlines involved.

“These (cases) arose during December,” Carroll said. “They were matters of urgency.”

Board member Jerome Page asked why the board was not told of the cases until Tuesday night. He said it was inappropriate for the board attorney to represent Thomas in the case, when he and another board member are involved as witnessing or being affected by some of Thomas’ alleged misbehavior.

The legal representation discussion happened soon after the board announced a new Code of Conduct had been discussed at a board retreat Feb. 1. It would be up to board members whether to adopt it, Thomas said. But no one had a copy of it Tuesday night, and no details were available. Thomas said it will probably be up for adoption at the next board meeting.

“We wanted to come together to call ourselves the ‘New Board,’” Thomas said of the aftermath of the retreat, meant to foster a more cooperative attitude among board members.

Press archives/  


Dale Gerhard / Staff Photographer/  

Sea Isle City Police Chief Thomas McQuillen and other members of the police department, held a meet-and-greet session dubbed “Coffee With a Cop” on Monday, April 30. at Mrs. Brizzle’s Buns and Deli on Landis Ave. Members of the public could speak directly with officers from the SICPD and ask any questions related to public safety. Complimentary coffee and light fare was served as all were invited to attend. Monday April 30, 2018. (Dale Gerhard / Press of Atlantic City)

Atlantic City casino revenue up 23% to start 2020

ATLANTIC CITY — The casino industry started the new year on the right foot by extending its streak of gaming revenue increases to 20 consecutive months in January.

Total gaming revenue reported by the city's nine casinos was more than $270.5 million last month, a nearly $50 million increase, or 22.6%, over January 2019, according to data released Wednesday by the state Division of Gaming Enforcement. 

"2020 is off to a promising start for Atlantic City," said Steve Callender, president of the Casino Association of New Jersey and senior vice president of Eastern regional operations for Tropicana Atlantic City’s parent company, Eldorado Resorts. "The city continues to see increased sports betting and tourism, two important economic drivers. I look forward to a year of continued progress in 2020."

Casino Control Commission Chairman James Plousis said the industry "continued its momentum with strong results in January."

"Revenue from slots, table games, internet waging, and sports wagering all grew," he said. "Internet and sports wagering did particularly well, bolstering the industry’s performance in the middle of the traditional offseason."

Table game and slot machine revenues were up 8.3% industry-wide, with the two newest properties, Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Casino Resort, accounting for much of the growth. The two properties were third and sixth, respectively, in the market in terms of revenue from tables and slots, with both reporting a better than 36% increase compared to last year.

"January was our seventh consecutive month of double-digit growth," said Ocean Casino Resort CEO Terry Glebocki. "We were exceptionally pleased with our slot revenues, which increased 87% over last January. We will continue to invest in our property and our new high limit slot parlor, new Asian gaming salon and new VIP lounge are on their way."

Online gaming revenue increased by more than $21 million, or 64%, in January over the same month last year. It was the first month where internet gaming revenues topped $55 million.

In 2019, online gaming revenue set records in eight out of the 12 months. For the entire year, online gaming's $482.7 million was an annual record and a 61.6% increase over 2018.

Eric Ramsey, a gaming analyst for PlayNJ.com, said that if online gaming continues its upward trajectory, $700 million is "within reach in 2020, which would have been inconceivable just a few years ago."

"The industry’s ability to find new areas of growth, along with the symbiotic relationship that exists with online sports betting, will keep online casino gambling moving forward," Ramsey said.

Local experts continue to see optimism in Atlantic City's future, as the casino industry continues to rebound from last decade when five gambling parlors closed within a two-year period. Hard Rock and Ocean reopened two of those shuttered properties in June 2018, the same month the industry's revenue increase streak began.

"January saw promising increases in gaming revenue over last year and continues to build on the positive trends within brick-and-mortar and the online arena," said Rummy Pandit, executive director of the Lloyd D. Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality & Tourism at Stockton University. "Sport betting and augmented non-gaming activities in the city continue to reinforce the destination's appeal for the discriminating clientele looking for an experience-based getaway."

Sports betting revenues were up 139.9% with a reported $23.4 million in revenue for Atlantic City casinos and their online/mobile partners. 

"Guests who came to wager on sports events took the opportunity to explore Atlantic City’s abundant gaming and non-gaming options," said Plousis. "Casino executives I’ve spoken with were very pleased that customers stayed longer to enjoy the city’s diverse dining and entertainment offerings. Making investments that lead to positive customer experiences can provide strong competitive advantage for Atlantic City."

Statewide, sports betting revenue was slightly more than $53.5 million, with $26.4 million reported by the Meadowlands Racetrack and its online/mobile partners, FanDuel and PointsBet. 

According to state gaming regulators, more than $540 million was legally wagered on sports last month, bolstered by the NFL playoffs, college football national championship and basketball.

Some sports betting experts predict New Jersey will not only continue to challenge Nevada as the leading market in the country, but could eventually surpass it. According to PlayNJ.com, New Jersey appears to be tracking ahead of Nevada, which generated $497.5 million in January 2019 and has never enjoyed a $500 million January in its history.

"New Jersey could very well top Nevada, not just in January, but for the foreseeable future," said Dustin Gouker, lead analyst for PlayNJ.com. "And assuming that happens, we could be seeing the beginning of New Jersey’s more permanent place as the top market in the country."