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Atlantic City mayoral challengers see Murphy's endorsement of Small as opportunity, not setback

In a normal campaign, a sitting governor with record-high approval ratings endorsing an incumbent mayor would almost guarantee a primary victory for the recipient.

But, Atlantic City politics are atypical, and the state’s hostile takeover of the city is even less popular among residents today than it was four years ago when it started.

So, it comes as no surprise that Mayor Marty Small Sr.’s opponents are turning the tables on Gov. Phil Murphy’s June 17 endorsement and using it as political ammunition for their own campaigns.

“My campaign is not some of the same old same old and the establishment is clearly shaken,” said Pamela Thomas-Fields, the chosen candidate of the Atlantic City Democratic Committee. “The truth is this is not personal, this is business. You only need to take a drive through the city to see that the status quo has not served the residents.”

Small dismissed his opponents’ criticisms as little more than political rhetoric, saying, in part, “if they could have got the endorsements that I’ve gotten, it would be a different story.”

“I’m running this city and focused on getting our economy fully open,” Small said. “So, I’m not going to give any life to their campaigns by responding.”

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan University Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship, said the mayoral challengers' attacks against Small over Murphy's endorsement may have had more impact if all this had happened before the pandemic, when Murphy's approval rating was 41%.

But Murphy's handling of the coronavirus pandemic has earned him high marks with the general public, including a recent Rutgers-Eagleton poll that found 77% of residents approved of the overall job the governor has done.

"The issues of the city are clear, and I'm not sure attacking a really popular governor's endorsement by arguing that the mayor is a puppet or in cahoots with the state is the best way to make your case." Dworkin said.

Murphy, in endorsing Small, said the mayor “has demonstrated real leadership during very difficult and challenging times,” a reference to the global pandemic that shuttered Atlantic City’s casino industry and the civil unrest taking place in cities across the country in response to systemic racism and police brutality.

The state, at the behest of Senate President Steve Sweeney and former Gov. Chris Christie, seized decision-making power from the city in 2016 as Atlantic City teetered on the verge of a fiscal collapse. The takeover was contentious and Small, then a member of City Council, was at the forefront of resisting Trenton’s power grab.

Since then, Murphy and Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver took office and promised a more collaborative approach to city business. Meanwhile, Small has changed his outlook and admitted that the state’s involvement has benefited Atlantic City residents, often highlighting four consecutive municipal budgets (2016-2019) without a local tax increase.

But over the same time period, Atlantic City’s debt has ballooned from nearly $224 million at the end of 2016 to $566 million today.

“My administration has been committed to the revitalization of Atlantic City and to smart investments that benefit the community and support Atlantic City’s families,” the governor said in his endorsement. “Mayor Small is committed to improving the quality of life for residents, increasing targeted development throughout the city, and providing opportunity for local businesses and merchants.”

Small’s opponents point to Murphy’s support as an indication that the city is still at the state’s mercy.

“The state is not our friend,” said Republican mayoral candidate Thomas Forkin. “If anything, (Murphy’s endorsement of Small) is a red flag. The state is just continuing to bleed this city dry.”

Forkin said his primary objective as mayor will be suing New Jersey over the controversial casino payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) law as well as the state's collection of casino-related taxes and fees.

Jimmy Whitehead, a Democratic candidate for mayor, said if Murphy was being impartial, the governor would have supported someone “without a controversial background,” a reference to Small’s two election-related indictments of which he was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing. Whitehead said he understands the state wants stability in the mayor’s office, but disagrees with the governor’s decision.

“I was very surprised at the governor’s endorsement,” he said. “But, I understand the politics they’re playing.”

The mayoral candidates are vying for a one-year unexpired term, the result of former Mayor Frank Gilliam Jr.'s resignation in October following a guilty plea in federal court to wire fraud. 

Small, Thomas-Fields and city Democratic Committee Chairwoman Gwendolyn Callaway-Lewis were nominated in 2019 by the party to replace Gilliam. City Council unanimously selected Small (who was serving as council president) to replace Gilliam until the end of 2020.

City Democrats and Small had a short-lived alliance before the two sides struggled to find common ground on matters such as personnel decisions and appointments. Small, who had unsuccessfully sought the mayor's office previously, wanted a chance to implement his own strategies, while the city Democrats believed the mayor was indebted to the committee for giving him the opportunity. 

The result has been a 2020 mayoral campaign that is, at times, intensely personal. A recent candidates' forum hosted by the NAACP was rife with individual insults and highlighting past shortcomings. 

"I urge voters to think forward for Atlantic City when completing their ballots, and to not cling to the complacency and corruption that has held us back for so long," Thomas-Fields said in her statement responding to Murphy's endorsement.

Small insists he is putting his energy toward leading the city in the midst of a multiple crises — health, economic and racial — and not "petty politics."

"I'm just going to remain focused on our agenda," he said. "I'm focused on the now. The future will take care of itself."

The July 7 primary election will be almost exclusively conducted by mail-in ballots as concerns over the novel coronavirus are limiting in-person voting.


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A resting place for a loved one in the forest, or at the bottom of the sea

WOODBINE — Steelmantown Cemetery is nestled in the woods of Cape May County.

The cemetery, the first and only natural burial preserve in the state, is anything but a traditional cemetery. Headstones and memorials are replaced with trees that serve as memorials for people who have died.

Ed Bixby, owner of the cemetery and president of the Green Burial Council, became interested in natural burials after visiting a family burial place only to find it overgrown and not well kept. This inspired him to start “Tree of Life Celebrations” in 2007, in which families mix the cremated remains of their loved ones into the soil to grow a tree in memory of that person.

“This all started right here in South Jersey. We’re helping institute a cultural change by environmentally doing something good, while also creating a memorable send-off. Of course, you’re going to be grief-stricken, but you can change the way you celebrate that person and the life that they lived,” Bixby said.

After burying people from all over the country, even people from Paris, right here in South Jersey, Bixby decided he wanted to offer a water option for natural burials, which is how he came across Memorial Reefs International.

The company offers families an ecofriendly burial option for their loved one by constructing artificial reef memorials using reef balls. The giant, marine-friendly cement balls serve as the final resting place for a person’s cremated remains. The most recent location is in New Jersey, which means people from the Northeast now have a reef within a reasonable distance.

Steve Burkoff, one of the owners of the company and executive director said “our clients are building a living legacy for their loved one that will last a lifetime.”

Many clients mix their loved ones’ ashes into the concrete that gets placed inside the reef ball, which then gets dropped into the ocean. Some people even add mementos or photos to the wet cement as the company’s approach to death is to have the family be involved with the creation of the memorial as much as possible.

“When the ball gets placed, fish move in almost immediately. And then usually within six months we start to see algae and plant life start to develop,” Burkoff said.

The company picks its locations based on where people like to spend their time when they’re living and also places that need the most restoration. There are memorial reefs in Florida and Texas; Baja, Merida and Cozumel, Mexico; British Columbia and Ontario, Canada; Venice, Italy; and now in New Jersey, right off the coast of South Jersey.

Memorial Reefs International is also an ally of the Reef Ball Foundation, so together there are over 3,000 other locations across 70 different countries. The client chooses the area they want their loved one to rest, and the company deploys the reef ball at that location.

Dillon Bobo, a lift truck operator from Southern Ontario who laid his mother to rest at the Mexico location, said, “My mom never really cared what happened to her after she died, all I knew was that she wanted to be cremated. My way of thinking, and I know my mother would agree, is that you’re going to be gone, so why not turn into something positive for the Earth? She also always wanted to go to Mexico, so I figured it would be a good sendoff for her.”

People who use Memorial Reefs International even have the option to dive and visit the reef ball to see how many corals have grown while also paying respects to the person buried. The company provides the family with the GPS coordinates so they can visit the site, just as they would for a traditional grave site.

Natalie Melham, a Texas resident who dropped a reef ball for her dad in Moderra, Mexico, in 2018 said, “It was such a beautiful experience. The thought and care that they take when developing the reef ball and deploying it in the ocean is equivalent to how a mortician takes care of a body and prepares them to be viewed at a funeral. We were all planning to go back to the reef, but COVID changed everybody’s plans.”

No reef balls have been deployed in New Jersey yet, but Bixby and Burkoff said they are preparing to drop reef balls about seven miles off the coast of Ocean City, to honor the first responders through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rather than the reef balls serving as a memorial, which they usually are, these reef balls will also act as a form of gratitude.

“The reef balls that we are dropping in Ocean City are namely for appreciation,” said Bixby. “But we are going to allow that memorialization if you do have someone who passed from COVID. We’re encouraging families to participate.”

To contact Memorial Reefs International, call 877-218-0747 or visit memorialreefs.international.


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EHT veteran makes history after appointed highest position in NJ VFW

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — A local veteran made history this month after he was sworn in as commander for the Department of New Jersey Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Brian Wiener, a township resident, is the first Atlantic County resident to hold the highest title within the state organization.

His dad Norman Wiener, 83, will serve as his chief of staff — another first. A father-son duo has never held those two positions together.

Brian, 49, was sworn in as commander at the New Jersey VFW’s convention in Wildwood on June 19. He was in the Navy for six years and served in Bosnia, the Persian Gulf and Iraq in the 1990s. Along with his state commander position, he is also an Atlantic City firefighter. Norman, of Brigantine, served in Korea from 1958 to 1959 in the Army.

Norman also served in the Army National Guard for about 10 years.

Throughout his time as a VFW member, Brian has held about seven different positions at both the local and state level. He will hold the high-ranking position for a one-year term, working with his father.

“I could choose anybody I wanted, and I chose him,” Brian said of his father.

And typically, the son follows the father in ranks, but Norman is gladly following his son.

“I trust him to make decisions, not just because he’s my father,” Brian said. “If he weren’t my father, I still would have chosen him. He’s very knowledgeable about this organization. He’s very fair and very honest. He’s got the answers. If he doesn’t have them, he’ll find them.”

As chief of staff, Norman is in charge of Brian’s daily schedule, which includes traveling around the state and even sometimes to Washington, D.C.

“Sometimes he misses a date,” Norman jokingly said about his son’s commander schedule. “When he’s got a meeting, I have my own calendar, I mark it down. We work together pretty good.”

“And he’s a better driver than I am,” Brian joked. “He drives me around ... and he pays for my dinners.”

And even though he works for his son, Norman still has to act as his father at times.

“I do it tactfully,” he said, jokingly. “Sometimes he doesn’t know it.”

“I put this poor man through hell growing up,” Brian said. “Now I can spend some good quality time with him, and that’s important.”

As commander, Brian manages the operations and logistics of the state’s 218 VFW posts and oversees its memberships and community involvement.

One initiative he helped push is to try to get benefits for all veterans, not just those who served in foreign wars.

“In the state of New Jersey, you’re not considered a veteran for tax purposes, or hiring purposes, if you were not in a conflict,” he said. “So that gentleman who did 20 years in the Air Force who never deployed doesn’t qualify for any of those veteran benefits the state offers. We as the VFW have been lobbying this for years to push that a vet is a vet, regardless of where you serve. You took the oath.”

Another push is to engage veterans with the community.

“We have to make sure that every post is doing community activities,” he said. “That we’re raising money and distributing it back out to the community. That’s one of our large jobs.”

Brian is also looking out for younger veterans, as serving in the military runs deep in his family roots. His two children are also following in his footsteps. Brian’s son, Collin, 26, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and his daughter Breana, 24, is a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps.

“What I love most about this organization is that we make an impact and make a difference with veterans,” he said. “And taking care of a veteran, what we went through. You can’t explain that feeling. When you come home, there’s a feeling of, ‘You have to take care of your battle buddies or comrades,’ and that’s why I do what I do.”


Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr., left, wearing a Philadelphia Eagles mask, was among the officials who toured the new field hospital Tuesday with Murphy.


Cape May Beach Patrol chief retires after more than 50 years on the beah

CAPE MAY — When Harry Mogck Jr. got out of the army in 1967, he needed a job.

His parents had closed the Cape May Boat Works his family had founded, but he wanted to stay in Cape May. He took a job as a lifeguard, with no reason to believe he would be on the beach for more than 50 years.

Universally known as “Buzz,” Mogck retired this month as the chief of the Cape May Beach Patrol, with new Chief Geoff Rife taking up the reins.

“I feel good about leaving it to him,” Mogck said. He hired Rife, and the two have worked closely together.

“It was my honor to be able to work with him for 36 years,” Rife said.

Rife does not expect to change much now that he’s in charge. He said in the 40 years that Mogck headed the beach patrol, Mogck worked to create a professional and well-trained unit.

“My goal as the new chief is just to continue to move our beach patrol forward,” Rife said. “I want to maintain our reputation and safety record. It’s something that we have a tremendous amount of pride in.”

There has not been a drowning recorded in Cape May at a guarded beach in the history of the patrol, Mogck said. The first paid lifeguards were hired in 1911. Before that, hotels placed surfboats on the beach and hired guards, according to a history posted on the Beach Patrol website.

Some things will change this year as Cape May and other shore towns adjust to the reality of COVID-19 and look for new ways to keep beaches safe. At protected beaches, there will be a guard on the stand and another on the sand to maintain the recommended distance, Rife said; guards will also be on paddleboards in the water.

Guards will be issued cloth face masks and are to use surgical masks and gloves for any medical call, Rife said. Rife is a certified EMT, one of several on the Beach Patrol.

Mogck retired June 1. He remains a popular figure among the lifeguards.

“The chief and I are very close,” Rife said. “I have the utmost respect for him. I can’t speak more highly than that.”

Mogck said Rife has been like a son to him.

City Council approved a resolution in Mogck’s honor, with each member of the governing body praising him at a recent meeting. But the honor that means the most to him came in 2012, when a Cape May beach was named for him.

It was a complete surprise. His children took him out to breakfast nearby, and when they walked up toward the beach they found the lifeguards lined up on the Promenade in front of what was to become his beach.

“I said, ‘They’re supposed to be up there,’” meaning the nearby patrol headquarters.

Standing on the back deck of the Beach Patrol headquarters on Grant Street, looking over his beach, Mogck said only one other lifeguard has been given that honor, Capt. Clete Cannone. The two beaches are next to each other. Cannone headed the Beach Patrol. Mogck was a lifeguard for about 10 years before replacing Cannone as the patrol captain.

Cannone also held the job for decades, leading the patrol from 1948 until 1980. At that time, the captain was the top officer in the Beach Patrol, Mogck said. In 2017, the city created the position of beach patrol chief and named Mogck to it, with Rife advancing to captain.

It better fit with the duties of the job and matched how other shore towns handled the chain of command, Mogck said.

Harry Mogck Sr. was a member of City Council as well as a businessman. His son had the nickname “Buzz” since childhood, bestowed by an aunt.

“I was pretty active when I was young,” he said.

Mogck said he could not begin to guess how many rescues he’d participated in through his years with the Beach Patrol. When he started, he said, the currents around Cape May were different, long before a beach replenishment project started in 1990 changed the size and shape of the beach.

In the 1960s and ’70s, he said, guards often used surfboats to rescue multiple individuals who had been pulled out past their depth by strong currents.

In its proclamation, City Council cited Mogck for bringing in more vehicles and new rescue techniques, including rescue cans, describing them as “orange torpedoes,” and rescue paddle boards.

In a proclamation signed by Mayor Clarence “Chuck” Lear, Mogck is credited with launching multiple initiatives, including EMT certification for all Beach Patrol officers, first aid and CPR certification for all members, bringing in surf chairs for visitors with limited mobility and initiating an after-hours rescue program.

In 1992, he started the Junior Lifeguard program, which officials say has become a model for other beach communities. Along the way, the national lifeguard championship competition was held in Cape May six times.

The city resolution also mentioned that Mogck once rode a bicycle to Florida, and another time rowed a boat there from Cape May. The city commended his “exemplary leadership, unwavering dedication and manifest integrity.”


Mogck

Buzz Mogck stands by a beach named for him, an honor extended to only two beach patrol leaders in Cape May history. This month, Mogck retired after leading the Cape May Beach Patrol for decades.