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Michael Perez  

Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson looks on from the sidelines during the second half of an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Dec. 23, 2018, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Michael Perez)

'Surreal' first day for Congressman Jeff Van Drew

WASHINGTON, D.C. — On his first day in Congress, U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, got the keys to his new office in the Cannon Building, started learning the elaborate tunnel route to the nearby Capitol Building, made a dramatic statement of independence on the House floor and spent an exhausting 14 hours at work.

“It was surreal,” he said Friday, after another voting session in the morning in which the new Democrat-dominated House decided on rules for the 116th Congress.

It was the first time the House was seating a freshman class during a government shutdown. That meant the House worked most of the day, unlike the typical first day when new members have time to go to parties and meet with friends and family there to share the experience.

“I felt bad. I didn’t get to see everybody,” he said of people who came to the office. “I’m so glad we didn’t invite a really big group. We decided we’ll have bigger things later.”

Others who did plan elaborate parties ended up spending their time on the House floor instead, he said. He started his day before 9 a.m. and didn’t finish voting until about 10 p.m.

Late Thursday night, the House passed bills to continue funding most of the unfunded parts of government through the fiscal year, and to fund the Department of Homeland Security — which is where the potential funding for a border wall would come from — for a shorter period, to Feb. 8.

“I voted for them, even though it’s probably fruitless,” he said, noting President Donald Trump has said he won’t sign the funding measures and the Republican-led Senate is unlikely to take them up. “Some are trying to push more to bring everybody together. Everyone needs to give in more, but everybody is digging their heels in.”

Van Drew wants the government reopened, with both sides giving and getting something.

“You’ve got a lot of people making less than $30,000, living week to week, who are not getting paid,” he said. “The Coast Guard is not getting paid.”

On his first vote Thursday he had opposed Nancy Pelosi’s nomination for House speaker with a simple “no.” But the clerk changed his vote to “present” to meet House rules, which would only allow that or a voice vote for an individual.

Fifteen Democrats did not vote for Pelosi, but she won with the majority of 220 out of 430 votes cast.

What were the biggest surprises of his first day?

“Just the feeling of living history,” he said. “It hits you in a sense, the people who have sat there before you, who have spoken there before you throughout history.”

And the disorganization, which he acknowledged may be difficult to curb with 435 House members.

“There was a little mayhem,” he said, with not enough seats for everyone there. Many members had their spouses and children with them, including Van Drew, whose wife, daughter and grandson were there.

“There were people standing and kids squeezed in. I think we can do a little better when we have a new freshman class in two years. We could make more room for people, bring in some chairs,” Van Drew said.

There is no assigned seating on the House floor, he said, unlike in New Jersey’s Senate and Assembly.

Van Drew did not have his ceremonial swearing-in photo taken with Pelosi. That wasn’t because of any bad feelings between them, he said. It was because he was spending as much time with visitors as possible.

She congratulated him after the swearing-in, he said.

“I think it’s an important thing in politics, to let others know what you are going to do, to not blindside them,” he said.

Van Drew planned to spend this weekend making what will be an extremely familiar trip home to South Jersey for an event he has long supported, to benefit a program to encourage young people to join the Air Force.

He has sold his dental practice in Pleasantville, where he had continued to practice 20 hours a week as a state senator.

“I will miss it. It was a real family practice,” he said.

Eventually he said he’d like to do some volunteer dental work, but that will have to wait until he has figured out his new routine.

Always a big exerciser, Van Drew is hoping to find time to get to the gym. During a normal week, he would do cardio, weightlifting and body-weight exercises.

On Thursday, the only decoration in his D.C. office was a gift from chief of staff Allison Murphy, who gave him a practical piece: the name plate for his desk. She surprised him with it Thursday.

“We’ll soon have pictures on the walls,” said Murphy as she showed Van Drew where to turn on the lights in a small alcove at the back of the room.

He will bring memorabilia to his D.C. office from his state legislative office. Some of it will also go to his congressional office in Mays Landing, which he took over from retiring Republican Congressman Frank LoBiondo.

“After 16 years in the Legislature, you get some things, and I did,” said Van Drew. “We’ve got to decide which things go where.”

His office area is 1,000 square feet, about twice the size of his D.C. studio apartment. But on Thursday, as staff and visitors came in, it was clear it will not be overly large for his staff and visitors.

There is a small reception area, with a half wall separating one office behind it. To the right is a tightly packed office for most of the staff, which will include legislative and communications staff; and to the left is Van Drew’s elegant office for work and for meeting constituents.

There has been so much to do with selling his practice, moving out of his old office, finding a place to live in D.C. and getting his new Capitol Hill office staffed and ready, the last few weeks have been a bit chaotic.

“The easiest thing of all has been the Mays Landing office,” he said. Two of LoBiondo’s staff members have agreed to stay on to make the transition easier on constituents.

Both Van Drew and LoBiondo have said it’s a good example of how the two parties can work together for the good of the district.

mpost-pressofac / MICHELLE BRUNETTI POST / Staff Writer/  

Chief of staff Allison Murphy surprised new U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew on Thursday with a name plate for the desk in his Washington office.

How South Jersey towns regulate Airbnb rentals

While many visitors may find it easier to navigate shore rentals with the recent growth of online platforms, city officials have run into issues with properties that create a “party-style” atmosphere, racking up noise complaints and code violations.

“It changes the dynamic of the neighborhood, and it does cause a lot of duress on the homeowners around there,” Ventnor Mayor Beth Holtzman said.

Airbnb, an online home-sharing platform based in San Francisco, allows residents to rent out their homes and has opened the door for travelers looking to have the local experience and millennials hoping to save on hotel fees.

NJ finally levels field among short-term accommodation providers

New Jersey rarely leaves ordinary and easily gotten tax revenue on the table. It’s strange that it let providers of short-term accommodations skip paying sales and occupancy taxes for so long — as long as the stays were arranged online through a service such as Airbnb.

Officials in some shore towns are left to map out their own regulations on how to hold hosts responsible.

“We’re limited to what we can control. It’s somebody’s property. It’s a frustrating position for us,” Holtzman said.

Officials in Ventnor passed an ordinance that requires any hosts renting their homes for 30 days or less to apply for a mercantile license and pay a $100 fee.

The license treats the properties more like a business and allows staff members in a city’s mercantile licensing department to keep tabs on compliant properties and make noncompliant property owners aware of the local requirements.

The move to hold homeowners more accountable for unruly activity came just five days before a shooting broke out at one such property on New Years Eve.

A 26-year-old visitor from Hillside, Union County, was injured at a 12-bedroom home on Vassar Square Avenue that was listed on Airbnb as an “ocean-block mansion.” There were almost 100 people in the home for a party that night, police Chief Doug Biagi said.

Biagi said the property had parking violations and two noise complaints months apart last year, but, like many rentals in the city, had no serious incidents before.

“For these people coming in for one night, a weekend or a week, the few are spoiling it for the masses,” he said.

Before the ordinance, Ventnor had no way to keep track of hosts using the online platform and file their contact information.

“I think the ordinance is the first step on trying to get a handle and at least give the city and the police the knowledge of who is renting and who is using Airbnb,” Holtzman said.

Airbnb said it recognizes the need for common-sense regulation of home-sharing and has worked with more than 400 municipalities to craft policy that fits both the needs of local government and those of local hosts.

“As a result, we can address transparency and public safety concerns, empower hosts to continue using their homes to make ends meet and help guests to visit new places all over the world,” said Josh Meltzer, head of Northeast policy for Airbnb.

Airbnb also said it runs background checks on hosts and guests in the U.S., looking for prior felony convictions, sex-offender registrations and significant misdemeanors.

The company recorded 140,318 guest arrivals in Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties this summer compared with 83,037 guest arrivals in total last summer.

It’s also created economic opportunities for homeowners. Hosts in Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties made a total of $30.6 million over the past summer compared with $17.9 million during the same period last year, Airbnb said.

“Everybody’s entitled to a little capitalism, to make a dollar, but not at the expense of our residents,” Biagi said.

Ventnor officials also will now be able to issue summonses and revoke a host’s mercantile license for repeat violations.

“You hit an owner in the pocket with a summons or two that can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, I think they start to understand that it’s not cost effective or maybe they should start considering who they’re renting to and the type of people that are going into their property,” Biagi said.

Atlantic City Councilman Jesse Kurtz, who held a public forum two years ago with residents and stakeholders regarding short-term rentals, said they have helped raise property values and interest in neighborhoods like the South Inlet and Lower Chelsea.

However, Kurtz agreed hosts need to have more accountability.

He said that while short-term rentals often act as a substitute for hotels, they lack some of the same security features.

“The hotel has a whole built-in mechanism to deal with that where security will come and deal with the situation, and if it escalates then it will go to the police,” Kurtz said.

Atlantic City does not require Airbnb hosts to get a mercantile license, but Kurtz said he supports regulations that would put more responsibility on a “local contact,” the homeowner themselves or someone who is in the area of the home, to address issues in a designated amount of time.

In Ocean City, which also chose to require a mercantile license for renters in June 2017, short-term renters are required to submit to safety inspections of smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors and fire extinguishers, and to pay $145 toward the Tourism Development Commission.

Kurtz said the peer-review system of an online platform can encourage hosts to self-regulate.

“My conclusion as somebody who represents an area where this practice occurs, the enforcement of the quality-of-life issue is key,” Kurtz said.

Atlantic City office workers seek salaries matching new hires

ATLANTIC CITY — The city’s white collar professionals have filed a grievance with local and state officials after City Council hired three new clerks with starting salaries higher than those of 17 current employees in similar positions.

The Atlantic City White Collar Professional Association is asking that current employees have their salaries raised to match these new hires.

“It is severely unfair to the existing employees who have been working for years with no salary increases to now have new employees brought in at a higher rate,” said Omar Nobles, union president.

On Dec. 3, Gianni Brooks, Sonate Harvey and Deana Farrell were all hired to Clerk 1 positions with salaries starting at $25,535. The hiring came as city officials proposed a plan to raise public employees’ salaries to a minimum of $25,000.

“These union employees should’ve been elevated immediately,” said Robert O’Brien, attorney for the union.

The union also claims the clerk positions were not properly advertised. Noble said no email was sent out from the Human Resources department to offer current employees the chance to apply if they wanted to transfer positions.

Lisa Ryan, spokeswomen for the state Department of Corrections, said employees were notified of the openings in an email from the city’s human resources department on June 27.

Atlantic City public employees uncertain about stipend proposal

ATLANTIC CITY — While city and state officials iron out details on securing additional funds for public employees in the 2019 budget, representatives for some of the city’s employee unions say the proposed stipends might not be enough, if they go through at all.

Council President Marty Small denied these claims and said the positions were properly advertised. Three advertisements for Keyboarding Clerk 1 positions were advertised in The Press of Atlantic City, one in July and two in August.

O’Brien, who said the union still has a dozen unresolved grievances dating to the start of 2018 for promotions and out-of-title pay, hopes officials will meet to resolve the issue.

“We’re hopeful that the city and the state overseer understand that people can’t live on less than $25,000 a year, which members of the bargaining unit are living on, and that they need to respect the precedent to match the new hires,” he said.

The Department of Community Affairs, the state agency that controls the city’s finances, verified that council had enough in its budget to pay for these new positions, Ryan said.

“These positions assist with the work of City Council. As such, City Council was looking to fill these vacancies as promptly as possible, and council asked that salaries be set at a competitive rate to attract qualified prospective hires,” Ryan said.

Linda Garlitos, of Atlantic City, was hired as a Clerk 1 in the Mayor’s Office in 2014 and currently makes $22,400 a year working the front desk at City Hall.

“I’m glad that they’re making money, however, my feeling myself is that I should be making as much as they are,” she said. “We should all be equal.”

Garlitos said she has taken on extra responsibilities such as serving as the city’s notary and operator.

“As employees leave, they’re not being replaced, so the workload falls on these employees that are left in office,” Nobles said. “Some of them are doing the jobs of two or three people, and they’re making it work.”

Small said the proposal in November to raise public employees’ salaries to a minimum of $25,000 shows his support for city workers.

“I’m the only one who’s coming up with an out-of-the-box plan, creative plan,” Small said.

Although it’s unclear whether the proposal to raise all employees’ salaries to a minimum of $25,000 will pan out in 2019, Ryan said the state is working closely with the city to formulate next year’s budget.

“The city’s and state’s mutual goal is to keep Atlantic City as fiscally healthy as possible and to stabilize property taxes,” Ryan said.