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Marty Small greets his hometown as mayor

ATLANTIC CITY — Marty Small was greeted by cheers and applause as he took the podium as interim mayor in Council Chambers Friday afternoon with his family around him.

Upon Frank Gilliam’s resignation Thursday night, Small became interim mayor, taking a position he has sought for at least a decade, in a city he has called home since a child. The oath of office took place out of the presence of the public and news media.

“I’m humbled by this opportunity, I don’t take it lightly,” said Small, 45. “To all my friends and supporters, my family: it’s been a long, long journey.”

Small is retaining his title as Council President, and when asked if he would collect both salaries, he deflected. The mayor’s office comes with an annual salary of a $103,000, while the council president’s office comes with an annual salary of $29,800.

His time as mayor could be temporary as the city’s Democratic Committee starts discussions on which three names they will bring to City Council to vote on to finish out Gilliam’s term. Gilliam pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday morning to one count of wire fraud and resigned his position hours later, not until Governor Phil Murphy called for him to step down and Attorney General Gurbir Grewal filed an application with state court to have him removed.

Gwen Callaway Lewis, chair of the Democratic Committee, said she is “sure” Small will be one of the final three names.

“I know not to take that Democratic Committee for granted,” Small said. “There’s some serious people in that committee that are in charge of putting good Democrats in office, and I think that I’m one of the eligible Democrats that they should consider.”

The changeover began before he appeared for the first time as interim mayor. By mid-morning, the Council President’s Office was dark, and the sign on the mayor’s office door that just one day earlier read “Frank M. Gilliam” was gone.

The doors on the office were propped open, and Small could be seen in good spirits just across the floor in the Business Administrator’s Office.

Small takes the reins of a position hamstrung by a state takeover to which he remains opposed. If he is voted in as mayor, Small said he would work with the state while aiming to get the city back to self-governance. He also wants to look into changing the tax structure to attract homeowners into the resort.

The last two days were not uncharted territory for Atlantic City. When then-Mayor Bob Levy resigned in 2007 on allegations he misrepresented his military history, then-Council President William Marsh became interim mayor.

“I’ve seen him grow so much since I’ve been here since 2002. ... And he’s more than prepared for this opportunity,” Marsh said. “As for me, I got thrown into it. ... He’s wanted it for a long time, and I think at this point he’s ready to serve and ready to serve honorably.”

In 2007, after Levy’s resignation, Atlantic City Fire Chief Scott Evans became acting mayor the next month on a council vote of 6-2 and served the remainder of the term.

“The fortunate thing is, with Acting Mayor Small, is that he has the experience of city government, being here for as long as he has,” Evans said. “He’s literally going to hit the ground running, which is going to be beneficial to the city.”

William K. Cheatham, 89, president of the Atlantic City Free Public Library’s Board of Trustees, sat at the front of the Chambers as Small spoke Friday.

Having lived in the city since he was 1, his friends referred to him as “Mr. Atlantic City,” and he’s seen the mayorship switch hands under less-than-ideal circumstances many times before.

“This is something that has been going on in Atlantic City as long as I can remember,” Cheatham said, referring to corruption and crime among elected officials.

He said he hopes Small learns from Gilliam’s mistakes and moves the city forward.

“If he starts with a positive attitude toward things, it can be overcome,” Cheatham said. “If you do anything, it follows you. It follows you here.”

Small, 45, became the youngest member in City Council’s history when he was first elected in 2004. He has eyed the mayor’s office numerous times since, most recently when he ran a primary campaign in 2017 that he lost to Gilliam.

On Friday, Small preached a hopeful message between cheers from his supporters at City Hall.

“Just know one thing: that my heart is for this city, my heart is for the people,” Small said, “and this is a responsibility that I take very seriously.”

Watchdog group alleges Ocean City lobbyist has do-nothing job

OCEAN CITY — The vice president of the watchdog civic group Fairness In Taxes is criticizing city spending of $5,000 a month on a lobbyist hired to help clear the way for back bay dredging projects.

In recent years, the city has undertaken an extensive effort to clear the lagoons and harbors along the west side of the island. Officials with Mayor Jay Gillian’s administration have said this and other infrastructure work has been too long neglected. Each year, the city invests millions of dollars in dredging, flood and drainage improvements and paving projects.

Dave Breeden, FIT’s vice president and a former employee with the city’s Public Works Department, generally speaks in favor of infrastructure improvements. But at a recent City Council meeting, he took aim at a contract with the lobbying firm Tonio Burgos Associates.

No one from Tonio Burgos Associates responded to a request for comment.

City officials said critics’ understanding of the work the firm has done is limited.

Based on city reports acquired through the Open Public Records Act and lobbying records required by New Jersey and the federal government, Breeden said he found no proof the firm made any efforts on the city’s behalf for close to two years.

The original contract was signed in 2016 and renewed in December 2017. Breeden said he received no answer when he asked how the city would evaluate the firm’s efforts. He said he submitted five OPRA requests seeking more details of the lobbyist’s efforts, including any reports submitted to the city.

“All five times, nothing in return,” Breeden told City Council. “You pay these people $5,000 a month, and not one piece of paper beyond what they need to submit to execute the professional services contract and to get the monthly payment.”

According to previous reports, the firm was set to work closely with ACT Engineering, hired to serve as the city’s dredging consultant and help formulate a long-term plan to keep the back bays clear of silt.

Breeden called for the city to cancel the Tonio Burgos contract, stating it does not benefit the city.

There was no response from the city administration or members of council at the meeting.

“The limited records referenced by the commenter in no way reflect the track record of success delivered by this firm,” Ocean City spokesman Doug Bergen said.

Breeden said the invoices to the city simply say “for services rendered” with no description of the work undertaken or the accomplishments achieved. In his comments, he described the firm as “the lucky lobbyist.”

Breeden’s search of records found Tonio Burgos arranged 10 meetings with state officials in 2016 and 2017, including meetings with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the state Department of Transportation and then-state Sen. Jeff Van Drew.

“Based on the information that I have, there have been no lobbying efforts by the lucky lobbyist since the third quarter of 2017,” Breeden said. The firm did set up a meeting with the DEP in July of this year, he added. “Let’s not kid ourselves. There have been no meetings, and no lobbying efforts for two years. There is no paperwork, not one shred of documents, indicating their work after five OPRA requests.”

At a town hall meeting on back bay dredging in December 2016, Gillian said Tonio Burgos would help find a way to cut through red tape and seek public funding for dredging programs.

The city has seen some success. In spring 2018, officials said Ocean City had been issued the state’s first-ever citywide dredging permit. At the beginning of this year, the DEP extended the city’s dredging season by a month.

The lagoons along Ocean City’s bayside are lined with boat docks. Over time, the thick, dark silt that builds up on the floor can make them impassible at low tide. It requires heavy machinery to keep these waterways clear. But those efforts are limited both by environmental regulations limiting the timing of the work and the need to find somewhere to deposit the material as existing dredge spoils sites quickly fill in.

“The city is committed to investing in long-overdue infrastructure improvements but faces bureaucratic obstacles at every step of the way,” said Bergen. “The lobbyist firm has been essential in forging partnerships with state and federal agencies to secure funding, permits and regulatory relief. The work has helped Ocean City become a model throughout the state for municipalities working on bayside dredging and flood remediation projects.”

GALLERY: Ocean City vs. Mainland Regional in surfing

MAAC athletes kick of educational partnership in AC schools

ATLANTIC CITY — “Just don’t give up whatever you’re doing,” St. Peter’s University basketball player Quinn Taylor told an assembly full of students from the Texas Avenue School on Friday.

The event was part of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference’s “MAAC Gives Back” community outreach program ahead of the MAAC Basketball Championship to be held March 10-14 at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall.

“Our basketball championships will be played at Boardwalk Hall for at least the next three years, and we look forward to creating meaningful partnerships such as this in the Atlantic City community and throughout South Jersey,” MAAC Commissioner Richard J. Ensor said.

The multi-faceted educational program includes athletes, coaches and officials from 11 teams in the NCAA Division conference visiting the district’s 10 school schools throughout the school year.

They will be advocating education, athletics, team activities, doing well in school and good decision-making.

This is the 26th year of the MAAC Gives Back program, but its first in Atlantic City. The city hosted the Atlantic 10 Conference basketball tournament from 2007-12.

Atlantic City Superintendent Barry Caldwell said that MAAC Gives Back is a great opportunity for students to rub elbows with successful student athletes.

“They get an opportunity to see both men and women in college sports and excelling in academics and to participate in such a prestigious basketball tournament,” Caldwell said. “Once March Madness gets here, the whole country gets involved. And it’s right here in our backyard.”

Caldwell said that the extensive educational component to MAAC Gives Back falls in line with district-wide initiatives, including the new “Never Be Absent” incentive program targeting chronic absenteeism – the NBA reference, he said, was a happy coincidence.

“It was easy to put those two together, so we’re going to run with it,” Caldwell said.

During Friday’s kick-off, Taylor, a small forward on the men’s team from Amarillo, Texas, and women’s team point guard Taiah Thornton, of Pennsauken, along with men’s assistant coach John Morton and women’s head coach Marc Mitchell, answered questions and gave out advice in an assembly for the sixth through eighth grade students.

Taylor said that “sometimes it gets hard,” but encouraged the students to work even harder to achieve their goals.

Thornton said the best advice she can give is to “be committed to whatever you’re doing, whether it’s studying for a test or preparing for a practice or a game.”

They also visited the third through fifth grade classrooms with the district’s English Language Arts specialist Mariann Storr.

Texas Avenue School Vice Principal Bo Christian said the partnership with MAAC was the “greatest thing” the district could have.

“It provides a different avenue for students to communicate outside of their community,” Christian said. “It opens up the whole world to them.”

Thornton said she was happy to give back to Atlantic City.

“We want to show that we were once in their position and with commitment and hard work, you can get to the higher level of school and athletics,” she said. “It gives the younger children someone to look up to.”

As part of MAAC Gives Back, the students are assigned pen pals with the college athletes, and they can participate in an essay contest. Local students will attend a MAAC Tournament game and listen to a guest speaker on topics such as leadership, teamwork, and sportsmanship.

The classrooms will be invited to participate in Bounce on the Boardwalk, where the students will be given MAAC basketballs and will bounce down the Atlantic City Boardwalk to the games at Boardwalk Hall.

GALLERY MAAC kicks off program in Atlantic City

Officials continue investigation into 5-year-old Bridgeton girl's disappearance, hopeful she's alive

BRIDGETON — It’s been almost three weeks since 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez went missing from City Park, but officials aren’t giving up on finding her.

“To date, we are still searching for that key piece of information that we need to lead us to Dulce, or to the circumstances surrounding her disappearance,” Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said during a news conference Friday morning. “We continue to examine new leads as they come in and re-examine massive amounts of information we have collected to see if new information helps us connect the dots.”

Dulce was reported missing Sept. 16, and state police issued an Amber Alert for her the next day.

Police said the girl may have been taken by a man who led her away from the playground, where she was playing with her 3-year-old brother, and into a red van.

Her mother, 19-year-old Noema Alavez Perez, was sitting in her car with an 8-year-old relative when she saw her son run back to the car crying and pointing to where he last saw Dulce, police said.

So far in the criminal investigation into Dulce’s disappearance, more than 300 law enforcement officers from various agencies have contributed, Webb-McRae said. They’re searched over 200 locations spanning out from the park into the city, including abandoned buildings and desolate areas, processed through 1,000 tips that have be received and identified and investigated more than 500 vehicles.

Officials have also made contact with registered sex offenders in the county to find out their location when Dulce when missing, she added, and reviewed video from where she disappeared, throughout the city and boarding townships.

Webb-McRae also confirmed that a citizen-run search of the area has been organized for 12:30 p.m. Sunday.

Earlier this week, Alavez Perez spoke to news outlets, begging residents not to give up on their search.

“Let’s keep pushing to find her safe,” said Perez, who was speaking to KYW-TV 3, out of Philadelphia. “If they could just return my daughter, she is just an innocent girl.”

At the news conference, police Chief Michael Gaimari said that no one has been cleared through the investigation, and that they’ve received numerous tips from outside and county and each one has been investigated.

Members of the undocumented immigrant community don’t have to be afraid of providing information to police, Webb-McRae said. Witnesses will not be asked about immigration status, she explained, echoing statements made by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and Gov. Phil Murphy asking for people to come forward.

Under Grewal’s Immigrant Trust Directive, issued in November, local law enforcement agencies are discouraged from entering into agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Since Dulce’s disappearance, officials from the State Police, FBI, as well as city police and the Prosecutor’s Office have searched for her using dogs, helicopters and boats to no avail.

“In the absence of physical evidence indicating that Dulce has been physically harmed, we remain hopeful and continue to act under the premise that she is alive,” Webb-McRae said. “We continue to consider all theories, and we want the public to understand that no piece of information is too small or too insignificant to track down.”

A $40,000 reward has been offered for information leading to Dulce’s whereabouts and she’s been placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list of missing or kidnapped persons. On Friday, the Philadelphia Lodge #5 of the Fraternal Order of Police is offering an additional $5,000 reward in the case.

“This case is going to be closed with a tip from the public,” said FOP Lodge 5 President John McNesby. “Somebody out there has information that will help close this case.”

Anyone with information about Dulce can call Bridgeton police at 856-451-0033 or the FBI at 800-CALL-FBI, or text information to tip411, beginning the text with Bridgeton. Anyone with video or pictures may upload them to fbi.gov/alavez.

Search ongoing for Dulce Maria, what you need to know about the case

Reward for finding Dulce increases to $52,000, what you need to know about the case