MULLICA TOWNSHIP — The township committee made its final move to accept the chief of police’s retirement in a special meeting Saturday.
Chief John Thompson will serve until Jan. 1, 2020, in an advisory capacity, meeting weekly with the acting chief, Capt. Brian Zeck, to ensure a smooth transition of leadership in the police department, according to Committeewoman Kristi Hanselmann.
Thompson’s retirement has stirred up mixed feelings in the tight-knit, rural township in recent weeks after it was revealed Thompson was the subject of an internal affairs investigation, the details of which have not been disclosed.
The township committee in June proposed and then pulled a vote on a settlement with Thompson over the investigation and then gave him a pay raise and six months of paid administrative leave with the understanding he would retire at the end of the year.
Zeck, the son-in-law of Mayor Chris Silva, already had taken over as acting chief July 1 when Thompson apparently withdrew his retirement paperwork from the state and rescinded a request for paid leave.
The resolution accepting Thompson’s retirement was the only agenda item before the township committee Saturday when it met in the tiny meeting room inside Town Hall.
Neither Silva nor Committeeman John Brown was present for the meeting. Nor was Thompson.
After the meeting, Deputy Mayor Larry Riffle had no comment on whether Saturday’s vote would put to rest any of the controversy in the town over the chief’s retirement. Riffle also could not say when the internal affairs investigation began.
“I thought it was a relatively good meeting,” Riffle said. “I didn’t see too many people with questions there present.”
Only a handful of residents were present for the meeting, and just two spoke — Barbara Rheault, a local teachers union representative who oversaw public safety when she served on township committee last year, and Barbara Sarraf, the wife of township officer P.J. Sarraf, who Thompson tried to fire last year due to his inability to work overnight shifts because of medical issues.
Rheault said she did her due diligence when the issue arose regarding P.J. Sarraf’s employment and the township received several anonymous letters alluding to the chief and misconduct, which were forwarded to the county prosecutor’s office.
“He conducted his work and managed our police department, and supervised our police department. And while there were incidents that had occurred throughout that period that may have been troubling to some, he did conduct his business faithfully to this township,” she said of Thompson.
Rheault said that the prosecutor’s office declined to investigate the chief and that matter was referred back to the township to take action. She said in the year that she served, there was no internal affairs investigation into Thompson. She asked the committee what had changed in the last year.
Rheault said she tried to get more information through Open Public Record Act requests but only received heavily redacted responses, and that she has been attacked personally and professionally for speaking out about Thompson’s retirement. She plans to file ethics violations in the matter.
Riffle said it was only Rheault’s opinion that there were ethics violations, but that was not the reality.
Sarraf defended the committee’s action.
“As a person that’s kind of been involved with everything that’s been going on, anything that has gone on with the chief, they were all by his own actions,” she said. “The only thing that was unethical was what he tried to do last year, which made the papers, in trying to fire my husband.”
Sarraf said those in power in Mullica let far too much go on in the police department in prior years that led up to Saturday’s action.
“If you’re a decent ethical person, maybe things wouldn’t have ended up this way,” she said.
Riffle said the retirement notice being accepted Saturday was the same one Thompson submitted June 24. A second notice of retirement was submitted by Thompson on July 30 as a clarification, Riffle said, and Thompson agreed to have it shared publicly.
As part of the chief’s contract, he is being paid for the last six months of his employment and shall make himself available daily for the department but will not control its day-to-day actions. In addition, this is not a paid leave.
Resident Robin Garwood asked if Thompson will still have a car, gun and arresting power, which the committee said he would.
Jack Cavanaugh Jr., 28, of Woodland, Pennsylvania, had never been on a surf board before suffering a traumatic brain injury nearly six years ago.
But, after emerging from a month-long coma and intensive rehabilitation, Cavanaugh’s physical therapist pushed him toward Life Rolls On and their annual They Will Surf Again event in Wildwood.
That first year, Cavanaugh came to the beach in his wheelchair and rode the waves, becoming instantly hooked to a sport he never attempted while able-bodied. After progressing both physically and mentally, Cavanaugh returned for a second year and walked to the ocean from the boardwalk.
“When he was injured, the doctor pulled me aside that night and asked me if he was an organ donor,” his father, Jack Cavanaugh Sr., said. “When he came out (of the coma), he was like a newborn baby. He couldn’t walk, talk. He didn’t know who he was. He didn’t know who we were. ... You can’t appreciate where he is now unless you saw him where he was.”
In 2019, now his fifth year participating in They Will Surf Again, the younger Cavanaugh is both a participant and a volunteer.
“(It’s) so self-rewarding,” Cavanaugh Jr. said, before describing an incident several years ago when he witnessed a young child, about 5- or 6-years old, ride a surf board for the first time.
“His arms just went skyward. He didn’t even catch a wave, he was just on the surfboard. And I was like, ‘This is what it’s really all about.’ I want to experience that for someone else — that joy, that accomplishment — more.”
For Jesse Billauer, founder of Life Rolls On and a world-champion adaptive surfer, stories like Cavanugh’s are why the nonprofit is so valuable, not just to the disabled community, but to him as well.
“People just light up that first time in the water,” the Los Angeles native said. “Surfing brings me so much joy. ... I just wanted other people to feel what I felt.”
Following a surfing accident in 1996, at the age of 17 that rendered him a quadriplegic, Billauer kept hearing a trite phrase that was difficult for a teenager to grasp — life goes on.
Recognizing that a wheelchair was now his primary means of mobility, Billauer combined his laid back California surfer attitude and brash sense of humor to put a spin on the tired cliche and founded Life Rolls On in 2001 as a way to both inspire and improve the quality of life for those with disabilities.
The nonprofit organizes charity events on beaches and at skateparks across the country and Canada, that allow physically disabled children and young people the opportunity to do something extraordinary.
“We just want to get people out of their wheelchairs and into the water,” Billauer said, earlier this week while staying at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, a co-sponsor of Sunday’s event. “We just want to let them enjoy that freedom beyond paralysis and have that independence that they lost by just riding waves.”
Today, Billauer, now 40, is a living embodiment of what that freedom looks like. He is married and the father of 2-year-old twins. He is a motivational speaker who travels around the country talking to disabled children and young people about opportunities that exist and challenges that await.
“You can still have a beautiful life. You can do whatever you want,” he said. “Hope is priceless.”
In the last decade or so, Billauer has discovered another hobby that provides him an avenue of personal fulfillment: poker. While staying in South Jersey, Billauer played in a poker tournament at Borgata, a place he has come to appreciate almost as much as the Pacific Ocean.
The strategy and competition of poker is compelling to Billauer, who said he uses his wit, humor and charisma to lure other players into a false sense of security.
“This game is about your mind. I do sit-down comedy (at the table) and everyone thinks I’m good. But, I’m here to take their money,” he said with a grin.
If ever there was someone who exudes summer, it’s Teri O’Connor.
A petite, tan, toned beauty with yellow hair to match her signature yellow painted toe nails, a dimpled smile and a happy habit of telling strangers they are “amazing,” O’Connor is, simply stated, a ray of sunshine.
The owner of NJ Beach Yoga, her year-round mobile yoga classes take her to homes, high schools and community centers.
Come summer, her self-proclaimed favorite season, is when she really shines and brings her classes to the beaches of Sea Isle City, where she is an independent contractor under the Department of Recreation.
Her summer season stretches from May 1 to Sept. 30, when Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings begin at 5:45 a.m. with 15 minutes of “quiet time” — reading, centering, meditation — before readying for her 7:30 a.m. beach class.
By 7 a.m., the 55-year-old wife and mother of three grown children is in her NJ Beach Yoga-branded minivan heading down Landis Avenue toward JFK to meet up with her fellow instructors, who also assist with selling T-shirts, setting up speakers and taking photographs.
In the offseason, O’Connor’s indoor classes fill quickly. With no walls, attendance at summer beach classes can be endless. O’Connor said 108 aspiring yogis signed in last Wednesday.
Yoga, with its various poses that challenge one’s balance even on a stable floor, is so much trickier on sand, which ebbs and flows with each shift in weight, like the nearby ocean does with the tide.
There also are several obstacles vying for your attention as you try to maintain focus on the beach. Distractions are everywhere. Take the seagull foraging for breakfast near your flip flops or the clanging truck of the beach sweeper prepping the sands for a busy day ahead. Chatty joggers may pass by right at meditation.
Then there’s the occasional greenhead.
Naturally there’s nature to contend with, too. A particularly hot and humid morning makes for a not-too-pleasant practice. Same thing if it’s too cold. Wind can blow sand in your eyes. Rain will take the class inside.
“The hardest challenge is the weather. ... I choose not to cancel until the last minute,” O’Connor said. “I say, change your attitude about weather like you change attitude about life.”
O’Connor knows all about change. The former dental hygienist fell into yoga “reluctantly,” only taking classes to prevent slouching. She immediately disliked it, finding she had no patience for being still or quiet. However, 15 years into her second career, she now feels she can be an example to others who have “labeled themselves out” as too fidgety or not flexible enough for yoga.
“I think because I hated it in the beginning that I really have a passion now. I want people to know that yoga is inviting and accessible,” said O’Connor, who epitomizes her company’s motto “ride, rather than resist, the waves” and can’t imagine retiring.
“I’m just getting started in life,” she beamed.
Aside from her morning beach yoga classes, when the newly risen sun radiates down and salty breezes kiss one’s skin, O’Connor offers full moon beach yoga in June, July and August for free. It’s her way of giving back to Sea Isle. The wildly popular event that scores yogis a glorious view of a bright and giant moon elevating above the horizon, can have up to 350 yogis on the sand at 29th Street.
Working with the chamber of commerce, designing T-shirts and continuing with her training either locally or in places such as India, Bali or Australia, is how O’Connor spends the offseason. She also stocks up on clam shells, on which she writes inspirational messages for her beach yoga students to take at the end of class.
“It’s been so rewarding for me,” said O’Connor of this tradition. “Teachers have told me they place them out on their desks, people send me photos and share memories. It serves as a reminder — ‘I was in a happy place.’”
Maureen Renzi of Abington, Pennsylvania, owns a house in Sea Isle with her husband, Ron, and can be found at O’Connor’s beach yoga every Friday in the summer.
Last week, she took off from her public relations job, so she was there even more. Renzi has been collecting O’Connor’s inspirational shells for years and keeps them in a jar at home for guests to take. Renzi revealed that O’Connor’s classes have become a “big part of my beach experience.”
“This is the best way to start your day,” Renzi said. “And it’s truly one of the best parts of having our beach house.”
As class ended on Wednesday, the soundtrack of the ocean continued to play as O’Connor playfully advised her students to ignore anyone who brings up the “F-word” — fall.
“It’s still summer,” she added heartily.
At The Shore Editor Pamela Dollak has frequently taken yoga classes with Teri O’Connor, including a beach class for this article. She’s a big fan and loves the practice-ending ritual of picking a seashell with an inspirational message from a blue beach bucket. The shell she picked for this class? “Spread sunshine.”
On Memorial Day weekend in 2018, the Atlantic City Fire Department “browned out” or closed at least two of its 10 companies.
“We were unbelievably busy that night with gunshot victims, medical accidents and a company broke down in the middle of the night,” said John Varallo Jr., president of Local 198 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
This incident and a handful of others in 2018 were reported, but since then the department’s companies — units referred to as either engines or ladders that contain four to six firefighters each — have continued to face closures.
In 2018, the department recorded 105 days when companies were either fully closed or closed for more than about six hours.
On three of those days, two companies were closed, according to information The Press obtained through an Open Public Records Act Request.
The department responded to 288 fires and 5,331 EMS calls in 2018, according to information from the state Department of Community Affairs.
As of July 19, the department has already recorded 110 days when companies have closed and on 10 of those days, two companies have closed.
“We’re closing a company or two companies more often than we probably have ever since I’ve been on this job, 15 years,” Varallo said. “It’s definitely becoming normal.”
As state officials are in the process of hiring more firefighters, city officials stated that they are “very confident” the fire department as it stands is able to serve the city.
“On those occasions when the fire department has gone from 10 companies to nine or eight companies, fire response times have not been impacted and fire protection has remained adequate,” the city said in a statement. “The fire department has received no complaints from the public about its responsiveness to calls.”
After a class of firefighters retired in early April, the department now has a total of 173 firefighters to protect a city of 39,000 residents and thousands of summer visitors.
The companies that close the most frequently include Engine 7 or Engine 1, both located at Station One on Maryland Avenue.
Operating under a 24-hour shift schedule and guidelines issued by the state, fire department management has had to periodically close down select companies due to a lack of manpower from factors like injuries, vacation, sick time and “Kelly time,” which are mandated days off to keep hours worked within normal levels of a pay period, Varallo said.
Engine 4 and Engine 2 have also closed this year and operate out of stations on Indiana Avenue.
Engine 2 was closed for almost all of June, according to records, having only been open fully on two days out of the entire month.
Station 4 on California and Atlantic avenues has been closed since January due to structural issues, and those companies were relocated. Ladder 2 was moved to Station Six on Annapolis Avenue.
Engine Four, which has since been re-designated as Engine Two, moved to Station 3.
“They are some of the companies that are there within two to three minutes. Now you’re talking about another piece coming because those two are closed being maybe four minutes away,” Varallo said. “When you’re waiting an extra minute for a police and fire ambulance to show up it feels like 20 minutes. It’s a matter of life or death there.”