PLEASANTVILLE — Only three of the four new members elected to the local Board of Education were sworn in during Thursday’s reorganization meeting.
While Jerome Page, Cassandra Clements and Sharnell Morgan took their seats on the board, Richard Norris was unable to take the oath of office because of a lack of paperwork, district Business Administrator Elisha Thompkins told the board member-elect that evening.
Following the meeting, Norris said he believed he should have been sworn in and showed a reporter his background check and fingerprint receipt, which he brought with him. He said he had reached out to Thompkins during business hours Thursday to confirm his eligibility but never spoke on the phone with anyone there. He said he also confirmed his eligibility with the state.
“I found out that he had contacted my secretary at 5:30 (that night),” Thompkins said, reached by phone Friday. “Since I didn’t have the documentation, I couldn’t swear anyone in.”
He also said that Norris’ documentation was not in the state system as of Thursday, but he was in Friday. He said Norris can be sworn in at the next meeting.
Norris, a former teacher in Pleasantville and Atlantic City, was previously elected to the board in November 2016 but was removed after taking his seat for failure to get his fingerprints done.
Norris said Thursday he was told at that time by the board that fingerprints weren’t necessary because of his employment in the district. That turned out not to be the case, leading to his removal.
“My opinion is that the meeting is still run by the ‘Good Old Boys’ and if you’re not a member of a favorite clique, you will be harassed, intimidated and bullied,” Norris said after the meeting. “It’s time for a change.”
Thursday’s meeting was particularly combative, with several moments of conflict between reappointed board President Carla Thomas and Page.
Prior to Page’s swearing in, the new member questioned why Norris wasn’t being sworn in, too, drawing Thompkins and board attorney Benjamin Brenner into a discussion over his eligibility. During the discussion, Thomas yelled out several times from her seat at the board table, “Come on” and “Come on, Ben, don’t fold.”
After the new members took their seats, Page, who has served 15 non-consecutive years on the board since the 1990s, asked to pull for discussion the agenda item setting the meeting schedule. He suggested eliminating small committees and instead having “a committee of the whole” meet once monthly for discussion, in addition to the monthly action meeting.
“We’re a young board, and we need to know in every category what is going on,” Page said.
Thomas interrupted Page saying, “You’re just going to keep going on and on. We know how it is.”
She also would not let him make a motion to change the number of monthly meetings from one to two. Instead, Thomas made a motion to change the meeting start time from 6 p.m. to 5 p.m., which passed unanimously. Eventually, Thompkins told Page to make his motion, which failed 4-3.
At another point, Thomas told Page to address her as “Madam President” and threatened to call the police to the meeting to remove him from the board.
In other business, the Carroll Law Firm of Smithville will continue to serve as the board solicitor for the district and James Barclay will serve as board vice president for the second year in a row.
Thomas thanked the board for unanimously voting her in as president for a fourth year in a row.
“I will continue to work for the betterment of our students, our staff and our community,” Thomas said.
After the meeting, Page and Morgan described the meeting as “terrible” and “divided.” A message was left Friday on Thomas’ voicemail seeking comment.
Change doesn’t come easy.
At least that’s what J.C. Byrnes, an employee at a Ventnor thrift shop, learned after the city enacted a 5-cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags in October.
“A lot of people would complain saying, ‘Oh, the town just wants more of your money,’” said Byrnes, who works at The Arc Makes Cents, Too Ventnor. “I think there are some people who are never going to get the concept.”
Three months in, Byrnes says most customers are either bringing totes or carrying items out in their hands. Merchants keep the 5-cent fee and face a $100 fine for violations.
A number of municipalities in Atlantic and Cape May counties have enacted such rules in the past year in hopes of cutting down on the 8 million metric tons of plastic that pollute the world’s oceans annually.
Brigantine, Avalon, Stone Harbor and, most recently, Somers Point, joined the wave, too, but Ventnor and Longport are the only municipalities in the area where the ordinances are in full effect.
There’s a learning curve for both businesses and people, said Beth Kwart, chairwoman of South Jersey’s Surfrider Foundation chapter. The group lobbies local governments to pass environmentally friendly measures.
It’s easy to forget totes at home, and some seasonal residents might be unaware of the rule. Businesses, too, are sometimes unsure how to carry out the ordinances at first.
“It’s a matter of changing old habits,” Kwart said.
ATLANTIC CITY — As a part of an ongoing national trend, the owners of The Claridge Hotel announced they will begin to phase out the use of plastic straws starting next year.
After Ventnor’s ordinance went into effect, residents noticed something was amiss: The city’s largest grocer, Acme on Wellington Avenue, was not applying the fee.
Acme spokesman Chris Ellis said the supermarket was waiting for a supply of reusable bags and updates to the store’s pricing system, which led to a delay in fee collections.
The issue made its way to social media but took longer to reach City Hall. And since towns rely partially on residents to report problems, enforcement isn’t foolproof.
“If no one reports it, it’s not likely the city will know,” Kwart said. “The commissioners need to be aware.”
City Administrator Maria Mento said Ventnor only received two calls since October alerting code enforcement of stores not complying.
The city sent out warning letters to four businesses that violated the ordinance, including the Dollar Tree on Wellington Avenue and Rite Aid on Ventnor Avenue.
No stores have been fined.
“When it surfaces someone isn’t charging, our code enforcement calls the store and works it out with them,” Mento said.
TRENTON — A Senate committee approved a bill Thursday to ban merchants in the state from using most single-use plastic bags, straws and plastic foam food packaging.
In Stafford Township, former Mayor John Spodofora spoke out against how the town’s ShopRite has interpreted a plastic bag ban that went into effect in December.
The grocer is selling 10-cent bags made of a thicker plastic that can be reused, but some contend the heavy-duty bags are resistant to breaking down and increase the plastic problem.
Spodofora said the bulkier bags don’t help solve plastic pollution and are not recyclable or machine washable.
“It was never meant to be this way,” Spodofora told the newspaper The SandPaper last month. “Please do not put them in recycling cans.”
The Somers Point ShopRite on Bethel Road is doing the same. At checkout, customers can buy thicker plastic bags for 10 cents for a limited time as the city gears up for a 5-cent fee starting next week.
Whether the ordinances are working is yet to be seen.
Longport, which enacted a 10-cent bag fee in 2015, saw a decrease in the amount of plastic found on its beaches over the past three years.
There were 186 plastic shopping bags found on Longport’s beaches on one day in 2015, but that number dropped to 26 in 2017, according to Clean Ocean Action, an environmental group that conducts bi-annual cleanups across the state.
But wind patterns, tides and the number of volunteers who sign up also affect the amount of debris picked up.
“(It’s) reassuring to see fewer plastic bags in the environment, whether it’s because of Longport’s ban or not,” said Coastal Watershed Protection Coordinator Alison McCarthy.
Stafford’s newly sworn-in mayor, Gregory Myhre, said it will be hard for towns to gauge whether the fees are impacting the environment. Myhre opposed the ban initially, calling it “government intrusion.”
“The beneficial effects of this ban, if there are any, will be difficult to measure,” he said in a statement.
Still, some want to see a statewide plastic bag ban rather than a confusing patchwork of different rules in every municipality.
In Ventnor, for instance, restaurants are exempt from the ordinance. Cross the border into Longport, and the borough’s two restaurants are included.
Gov. Phil Murphy vetoed a bill in July that would have placed a 5-cent fee on single-use plastic and paper bags, telling lawmakers the measure wasn’t strong enough and calling for a ban.
Supporters praised the move, saying the bill didn’t go far enough. Others contended a fee across New Jersey would ease shoppers into a ban further down the road.
A bill introduced in the legislature in June calls for the prohibition of plastic carry-out bags and single-use plastic straws. It sits in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.
“Smaller towns that have passed their own legislation,” Kwart said, “they’re setting an example and showing it can work on a statewide level.”
Ocean City’s L&G Spa appeared to be shuttered Friday afternoon, with fabric covering the windows. There was no answer when a reporter knocked.
Meanwhile, the 61-year-old woman charged with running a brothel out of the spa made her first appearance in court Friday.
Grace Li, of New York City, is charged with managing a house of prostitution out of the business in the 500 block of Ninth Street. She appeared before Municipal Court Judge Marian Ragusa in Cape May County Superior Court in Cape May Court House.
If convicted, Li could face three to five years in prison. Her next court appearance will be a pre-indictment conference scheduled for 8:45 a.m. Feb. 28.
OCEAN CITY — In a dry town that calls itself “America’s Greatest Family Resort,” few people would think someone would operate a brothel on the main street of the gateway into the city.
Li, who required a Mandarin Chinese interpreter, sat in the courtroom in an orange winter coat, her hair tied back. Ragusa explained the charge against Li and advised her of her right to an attorney.
When Ragusa asked whether she understood, Li nodded, then answered affirmatively.
All of her identification and medical cards were taken away, Li said through the interpreter before asking whether they could be returned.
Ragusa said she doesn’t have control over that but suggested that once Li has an attorney, the request can be expedited.
Li left the courtroom quickly after her appearance.
There is a prevalence in the U.S. for massage parlors to act as fronts for commercial sex operations. More than 9,000 illicit massage parlors are currently operating across the country, raking in an estimated $2.5 billion in yearly revenue, according to a study published in 2018 by Polaris, a nonprofit that works against human trafficking.
BRIDGETON — Tara O’Shea-Watson’s body was found less than a week before Christmas 2016 with stab wounds all over her throat, chest and stomach, investigators testified Thursday.
Li was charged Dec. 13 after investigators conducted a search of her business. She was then released on a summons.
Two officers “were offered to engage in sexual activity in exchange for economic value” on Dec. 4, according to the criminal complaint.
The investigation and search came after a July tip to police that alleged prostitution at Li’s business, according to a news release from the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office.
Through the investigation, officials learned that “customers could purchase sexual acts from females inside the business.”
The Ocean City Police Department, Homeland Security Investigations and the county Prosecutor’s Office investigated.
MAYS LANDING — An Egg Harbor Township man faces 40 years in prison after he admitted killing his girlfriend with a hammer while she slept in the home she shared with their four children.
Lashaun Smith, 37, pleaded guilty to murder Friday before Atlantic County Superior Court Judge Bernard DeLury, Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner announced.
Smith had initially rejected a plea agreement in November, which would have brought the case to trial.
As part of the plea deal, DeLury recommended a 40-year sentence, 85 percent of which must be served before Smith is eligible for parole.
According to Tyner, Smith admitted to the court he killed 28-year-old Sarah Phillips on Nov. 3, 2017, by striking her in the head with a hammer four times while she slept. The couple shared four children who were also in the home, according to authorities.
At 5:04 a.m., police responded to a 911 call for an injured woman inside a home on South Zion Road. Phillips was found and pronounced dead at the scene.
Court documents state Smith confessed the night of the incident to hitting Phillips in the head with a hammer because “she had been seeing another man and he didn’t want to share her,” and he told police dispatch he was the reason Phillips was bleeding.
During a previous court appearance, the Prosecutor’s Office said Smith had several prior domestic violence incidents, including pending charges from Aug. 14, 2017, for simple assault on Phillips.
Sentencing is scheduled for Feb 22.