Increased political engagement may be most obvious nationally, but the recent annual reorganization meetings for town governments showed it’s a general trend at all levels.
Such meetings used to be among the least eventful of the year. Typically just a few family members and friends of officials would attend, and little would happen besides ceremonial swearing into office.
At the Wildwood Commission’s first meeting of 2020, a standing-room-only crowd welcomed new commissioners Krista Fitzsimons and Steve Mikulski, who along with incumbent Pete Byron won decisively in November. They immediately made Byron the city’s new mayor, replacing Ernie Troiano after a high-profile decade in office. The commissioners appealed to the public to help them improve Wildwood government and make it more responsive to residents.
Atlantic City also saw new members and a new council president. Councilmen Muhammad “Anjum” Zia and Md Hossain Morshed started new terms after victories in November’s election. LaToya Dunston continued to serve in the seat left vacant by Mayor Marty Small Sr. when he was selected to replace Frank Gilliam, who resigned after pleading guilty to federal wire fraud. The new council then selected incumbents George Tibbett (over acting council president Aaron “Sporty” Randolph) as its new president and Moise Delgado as vice president.
The year’s first meeting of the Egg Harbor City Council welcomed three new Republican members, who were sworn-in by Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-2nd, and state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic. Then fellow Republican and longtime Councilman Cliff Mays dropped a bomb in the midst of the ceremony, claiming that “our governing body is consumed by white nationalists.” That’s a divisive charge and would be very serious if supported by some evidence that there’s a basis for it.
For starters, as Council President Angelo Lello said, a reorganization meeting isn’t the place for serious new concerns. Unless Mays wanted to take advantage of the event to provoke the greatest reaction, he should have brought his charge to fellow council members for discussion — which is what Lello said would happen later.
The only example Mays offered of “white nationalists” was that a council member had hugged a departing former Democratic member whose Facebook posts had been condemned as racist and transphobic by leading Atlantic County Democrats. That’s more than a stretch. Asked what he meant by “white nationalists,” Mays said they are “simply” people “who don’t like black people.” Mays needs to take this matter more seriously if he wants others to.
A worse surprise, though, was dropped on the Galloway Township Council reorganization.
Three Republican candidates had crushed their Democratic opponents in the November election, preserving the party’s 3-2 majority on Township Council.
But then Republican Councilman Robert Maldonado announced he was voting with the Democrats, and with them threw out the local government voters had just overwhelmingly endorsed.
Anthony Coppola, who had just received 40% more votes from Galloway residents than his nearest Democratic competitor, was dropped as mayor in favor of Councilman Jim Gordon, whom Maldonado merely said “will probably do a good job.”
Maldonado, who changed his voting registration to unaffiliated last year, said he now represents the entire township, not Republicans or Democrats. But the entire township just clearly voted for the leadership that he took it upon himself to overturn. Maldonado disrespected and ignored Galloway Township’s voters.
Greater engagement by South Jersey residents in government and politics is good. That’s how democracy is supposed to work. But local officials should spare their constituents the partisan divisiveness, maneuvering and self-interest that are too common at the state and national levels.