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Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer  

Atlantic City Corey Yeoman in action against Egg Harbor Township. Sept. 6, 2019 Craig Matthews / Staff Photographer

This Atlantic County town a rare third-party success story

HAMMONTON — Walking past businesses on a sunny weekday morning in August, there’s a buzz of activity on Bellevue Avenue.

People eat breakfast at sidewalk tables outside restaurants while others mill about the bakery, toy and hardware stores, the pharmacy, salon and the coffee shop.

It’s a picturesque look at a thriving downtown that many attribute to the shift in political power away from traditional parties.

“Hammonton is the perfect Norman Rockwell picture,” Mayor Steve DiDonato said. “Small-town Americana.”

For well over a decade, independent party Hammonton First has dominated municipal races in the town of about 15,000 residents. Candidates in the upcoming election said the party thrives by taking the focus off bipartisan politics and instead working on growing local business and community.

However, some residents aren’t convinced, and say that while the party might have started out with good intentions, they aren’t focusing on sorely needed improvements to infrastructure and don’t have the support of a major party at the county or state level.

Voter registrations in the town stick to the three major groups: Democrats, Republicans or unaffiliated, with Republicans having the majority up until the early 2000s, Atlantic County election data show. In 2009, voters who registered as unaffiliated surpassed both Republicans and Democrats. Ten years later, there are almost 1,000 more registered unaffiliated voters than Republicans.

This fall, three Hammonton First candidates are running against three Republicans for open Town Council seats. There are no Democrats in the race.

A spokesperson for the Hammonton GOP declined to comment for this story. Town Democrats did not respond to requests for comment.

Inside Breadheads Bakery on South Second Street, co-owners Matt and Freya Horowitz, of Galloway Township, talked about how Hammonton First has helped shape the town into a destination by boosting shops like theirs, and how they’re trying to find a home in town.

“It’s like a real throw-back to the small-town mentality,” Freya Horowitz said. “Our perspective is they’re a pleasure and they’re doing a great job.”

Brooke Sacco, who’s running for re-election under Hammonton First, said the party’s mission is in its name — “to just really focus on what was going on in Hammonton and not worry about higher-level politics.”

One of the party’s biggest accomplishments is the transformation of the downtown, said Sacco, 37, adding the main street “was not in the best shape” in 2005 when the party first formed.

She said many people avoided Bellevue Avenue as it fell into disrepair, but it’s thriving now.

Even though Hammonton First has held a majority of council seats for 14 years, Sacco said it’s not a true majority, as members come from Republican, Democratic and independent backgrounds.

“A lot of people say you can’t have one party and too much power,” she said. “We’re a family, really.”

But not all residents agree.

Fred Terpolilli, who runs the Facebook group Hammonton Residents United, said the town and its people are close-knit and conservative-leaning, and the party isn’t as bipartisan as it appears.

Terpolilli, 64, said the party is about “what’s best for few, not what’s best for all.” He created the Facebook group late last year after being “fed up” with code violations going unchecked against landlords whose properties are not maintained, he said.

“I see my town deteriorating,” he said. “If you drive down Bellevue Avenue, it’s window dressing.”

And, as an independent party, the group doesn’t have support outside of town, Terpolilli said.

“They have nowhere to go,” Terpolilli said. “They’re in their little bubble.”

Bill Cappuccio, 66, a lifelong resident of the town and a member of council in the 1970s, said he was concerned by the independent party’s agenda and focus.

“They sold the town a bill of goods that they were going to be an independent voice of the people,” he said. “As soon as they came into power, they became the voice of Hammonton First and not the voice of the people.”

He said the town’s infrastructure, such as the sewer system, is crumbling, and streets are in need of repair. And he hasn’t seen an influx of ratables in the past decade.

Asked how the party’s candidates continue to be elected, Cappuccio said, “Nobody’s paying attention.”

DiDonato said the town works each year to improve roads and sewer lines a portion at a time so as not to go into debt.

“We have a certain amount of dollars every year that are dedicated to infrastructure improvements,” DiDonato said. “We’re fiscally conservative and socially liberal.”

Officials also are working with landlords to improve properties, including identifying code violations and issuing citations, he said.

“We have to do what’s best for Hammonton ultimately,” DiDonato said. “What to a resident appears like we’re not moving fast enough is just the red tape that’s involved in government.”

Deputy Mayor Tom Gribbin, 39, is running his seventh campaign under the independent party.

“We’re not about partisanship, and I think that if you can take a step back and focus on things that can help make your community better, that’s what people want to hear,” Gribbin said. “They don’t want to hear the bickering.”

A “pro-business mindset” brought private investment into the town, Gribbin said, and the party has focused on improvements to infrastructure and quality of life.

But there’s still more to be accomplished, especially keeping the town’s calendar of events full to draw in tourists and keep businesses busy, members said.

“We’ve done a lot of work, but we need to keep working,” Sacco said. “We can’t just sit on our butts. We have to just keep moving forward.”

SEEN at Puerto Rican Festival in Hammonton

Atlantic County correctional police officer recruits learn discipline, empathy

MAYS LANDING — Fifteen men and women sat in a small classroom Thursday morning at Atlantic Cape Community College, writing down notes from a slide projected on a board detailing federal and state laws about discrimination and civil rights.

When posed a question by their instructor, the students, clad in starched khaki uniforms and shiny black boots, stood and book-ended their answers with “sir.”

As schools across the U.S. start classes this month, these recruits are studying at the Atlantic County Police Training Center. It’s the first class of correctional police officers in the county in four years, but when they’re finished, they’ll join 500 others who have graduated from the county’s training program through 23 other classes since the late 1990s.

The 15-week course involves physical training, military drills, firearms instruction, self-defense, emergency response, as well as instruction in the state criminal code, contraband and evidence processing, and drug identification and interdiction.

“We want to make sure they have these skills that they are going to use to do their jobs professionally and respectfully,” said Ed Thornton, the academy’s director of training.

In addition to time in the classroom, the recruits go through training at their jail. Out of this class, 10 will work at the Atlantic County jail, while three will go to Cape May County and two will go to Salem County.

“The light bulb goes on for them,” Thornton said. “It’s not just all theory in here. They have something to refer to.”

But among the most important skills the recruits will learn is how to communicate, officials said.

David Kelsey, warden of the Atlantic County jail, was part of the fourth class at the academy. It was there he learned how to be empathetic on the job, as well as social skills, like being able to read a situation and de-escalate it if necessary.

“If you’re fair, firm and consistent each and every time you deal with things, the inmate population will respect you for it,” he said, adding the lesson has held true over his 22-year career in law enforcement working in the jail.

He said correctional police officers are police officers of their own city, where they patrol housing units instead of neighborhoods, and respond to medical emergencies, connect inmates to rehabilitation services and are there to listen and help.

With everything they’re responsible for, Kelsey said the way correctional police officers are portrayed in movies and television — generally as abusive and corrupt — couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Officer Zachary Shurig, who’s in his eighth year at the Atlantic County jail, described his job as being “a jack of all trades,” saying he’s responded to fires and sometimes plays the role of a social worker.

“You have to go into everything with an open mind and learn to adapt to each individual person,” he said, explaining that because correctional police officers are on the custodial end of policing, they really get to know the inmates at their facilities.

And inmates often remember correctional police officers longer than the officers who arrest them, Shurig added, saying it gives them an opportunity to make a difference.

“Through the process, you become a better person,” Shurig said of his training and career. “At the end of the day, we’re here just like any other public service job, just trying to do it well.”

Is it time to split up Pleasantville High School? Local officials discuss

PLEASANTVILLE — An Atlantic County freeholder thinks dividing Pleasantville High School could help solve at least one of the problems in the beleaguered district.

Freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick made the suggestion on the Bishop John Gandy radio show Aug. 22, on which she discussed Absecon’s recent attempt to sever its sending and receiving relationship with Pleasantville, citing among other things a lack of educational opportunities.

“Absecon withdrawing from the district doesn’t solve the problem of the lack of equitable education that the children of Pleasantville are receiving,” Fitzpatrick said shortly before suggesting a vision she had of sending half of Pleasantville’s high school students to Absegami in Galloway Township and the other half to Mainland Regional in Linwood.

Reached by phone this week, Fitzpatrick said her suggestion was “as a last-resort situation” in light of Absecon’s request.

“I watched the presentation online of what Absecon put together to let people know about what they wanted to do and why, and the comparison between the schools was pretty drastic,” Fitzpatrick said.

She said the students in Pleasantville are not getting the education they deserve based on test scores, SAT participation, graduation rates and availability of Advanced Placement classes, all of which are lower in Pleasantville than Absegami or Mainland.

Pleasantville school board member Jerome Page, who also was on the show that day, said he would be in favor of splitting the high school, but only if the district were under a state takeover.

“I would be 100% behind that if the state decides to take over the school system,” Page said. “My understanding is this is the last chance for us.”

Page’s comments were brought up Tuesday at a school board meeting by Craig Callaway, of Atlantic City, whose family Page called out on the radio show as the cause of problems in Pleasantville schools.

“That’s interesting that the Pleasantville teachers association funded his candidacy last year, and this is what you get, you got what you asked for,” Callaway said.

Page said his comments were presented out of context by Callaway.

During the radio show, Page told Gandy that the election in November, in which he is seeking reelection, is the most important ever as the district already has two state monitors and a warning from the state about board governance and finance.

He alleged on the show that the election of anyone with ties to the Callaway family would result in a state takeover.

“We were told that this was our last chance from the governor and from the commissioner (of education),” Page said.

Page said he wants to see more educational opportunities for the students in Pleasantville and a way to bring back some of the 250 enrolled at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology.

Fitzpatrick, who also recently suggested looking into ways to solve funding issues brought up by sending districts related to the county vocational school, said she believes a countywide school district could create a more equitable educational landscape for all the county’s residents.

“The model at ACIT is working well, it’s just that the funding is difficult,” she said. “What I want is for all the children in Atlantic County to have an equitable education. They all deserve to have a shot.”

Page said Pleasantville has the capacity to offer career training programs at the high school similar to what is offered at ACIT.

Absecon school board looks to leave Pleasantville for Absegami

ABSECON — Citing concerns about the quality and quantity of educational opportunities offered at Pleasantville High School, the Board of Education in Absecon voted Monday to begin the process of ending its sending and receiving relationship with the neighboring town.

“We are equipped to bring that back,” Page said. “For some reason we abandoned it, but we can bring it back.”

Fitzpatrick said she didn’t know Pleasantville had the infrastructure, and that there may be opportunities for ACIT to partner with Pleasantville on career training programs.

“We have to start having a conversation,” Fitzpatrick said about ACIT and countywide school districts. “We have to think of something new because I get a lot of contact from constituents about this that their taxes keep going up and there is no end in sight. And school is the biggest portion of property taxes. I think just opening the conversation up is the beginning. You can’t get anywhere if you don’t start.”

PHOTOS from the first day at Pleasantville High School

Tom Copeland / Associated Press  

Beaufort Police Officer Curtis Resor, left, and Sgt. Micheal Stepehens check a sailboat for occupants in Beaufort, N.C. after Hurricane Dorian passed the North Carolina coast on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Dorian howled over North Carolina's Outer Banks on Friday — a much weaker but still dangerous version of the storm that wreaked havoc in the Bahamas — flooding homes in the low-lying ribbon of islands and throwing a scare into year-round residents who tried to tough it out. (AP Photo/Tom Copeland)

cmatthews-pressofac / Craig Matthews/Staff Photographer  

Atlantic County freeholder Caren Fitzpatrick