New Faces and Old Problems Dominate 2018 News

No. 9: Bridge Work Continues. File Photo by Ryan Morrill.

There’s no doubt that 2018 was a busy year for news in Southern Ocean County. Last week we talked about bank robbers, the threat of offshore oil drilling, the new heights reached by the LBI FLY kite festival, dredging, a measles outbreak, the fight against the DEP’s plan to clear-cut 19 acres of the Pinelands, beach replenishment, Beach Haven’s new borough hall, Southern Ocean County’s reaction to the Parkland shooting and the great pot debate in New Jersey. And those were just the bottom half of the Top 20 news stories of Southern Ocean County of 2018 as they appeared in the pages of The SandPaper.

Now for the Top 10!

No. 10: New Faces Galore. Every year brings a new police chief here or a new school or municipal official there in Southern Ocean County, but there was a bumper crop of new appointees in 2018.

James L. Markoski was named Beach Haven’s police chief in January while Sam Liefried was tagged as Tuckerton’s new town historian. January also saw Toni Smirniw take over as manager at the Long Beach Island branch of the Ocean County Library while Dorothy Luyster settled into the same position at the Tuckerton branch.

Keith Germain took over as Barnegat’s police chief in February. Meanwhile, a familiar face, Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, took on a second job as director of personnel and program development for the Ocean County Health Department. The shortest month also saw Dani Corsi named as the new executive director of David’s Dream and Believe Cancer Foundation and Barnegat resident and former NFL lineman Jonathan Carman appointed as the superintendent of the Ocean County Juvenile Detention Center.

In March it was announced that Brian Latwis, the special education director for the Barnegat Township School District, would move up to the district superintendent slot on July 1.

Daniella Kerner was named executive director of the Long Beach Island Foundation of the Arts and Sciences in May. Meanwhile, Kristen Crepezzi took over as the children’s librarian at the Long Beach Island branch of the Ocean County Library. The Long Beach Island Board of Education hired Christine Kelly as school business administrator and board secretary in May as well. The biggest news on the local hiring front in May was the Little Egg Harbor School District agreeing to share its superintendent, Melissa McCooley, with the Pinelands Regional School District.

The West Creek Methodist Church got itself a new pastor, Lou Strugala, in July. That same month the Barnegat School District got itself two new principals, with John Fiorentino taking that position at the Lillian Dunfee Elementary School while Shannon Smith took over the reins from Fiorentino at the Russell Brackman Middle School.

Dan Smith resigned his job as business administrator for the Stafford Township School District in August to take a similar position with another district closer to his home. His resignation resulted in a musical chairs-like movement of school business administrators in Southern Ocean County throughout the fall. Lourdes LaGuardia left the Barnegat School District to take Smith’s old job. Stephen Brennan left the Pinelands Regional District to take LaGuardia’s job in Barnegat. Nicholas K. Brown, already the business administrator for the Little Egg Harbor School District, filled Brennan’s slot at Pinelands via a shared-services agreement.

While the business administrators were being shuffled, Tuckerton Elementary School Principal Siobhan Grayson resigned to become Bass River School District superintendent of schools. In October, Stephanie Wroniuk, a vice principal in the Hamilton Township School District, was hired to replace Grayson at Tuckerton.

In September, Theresa Foster was named the manager of the Stafford branch of the Ocean County Library.

Finally, in October, Gov. Phil Murphy appointed Toms River attorney Bradley Billhimer as Ocean County prosecutor. Billhimer, a Democrat, replaced popular Republican Joseph Coronato, who, in his five years in office, had become a nationally recognized leader in the fight against the opioid scourge.

No. 9: Bridge Work Continues. What year did the work on the bridges and Causeway that connect LBI to the mainland begin? I can’t remember, can you? (Research showed it was in 2013.) And when will it end? (Supposedly in 2021.)

I’m always amazed that it will take longer to complete the project than it took to build the Golden Gate Bridge, which was built in four years and three months despite being constructed over waters with an incredible tide and, often, in deep fog. Still, progress on the Causeway is undeniably being made. And, to be fair, the folks who worked on the GG didn’t have to deal with freezing winter weather and heavy summer traffic.

It was dealing with that summer traffic that made the Causeway project controversial in 2018. Contractors for the project asked the New Jersey Department of Transportation for permission to close lanes during the daytime at the end of May and halfway through June, despite the fact that a road-repaving project in Stafford Township had led to monumental traffic jams the previous November. And area roads are a lot busier in June than November.

Stafford Township approved the daytime lane closures, with officials saying the noise that would be created by driving metal sheeting at night would be unbearable for residents of Beach Haven West, Cedar Bonnet Island and Mallard Island. But Surf City Mayor Francis Hodgson and Ship Bottom Mayor William Huelsenbeck were concerned about traffic tie-ups, safety and a loss of business to their town’s merchants.

When the lane closures became reality, the debate intensified. The DOT said closures were imperative, talking for the first time about the structural integrity of the West Thorofare Bridge.

“If this condition is not immediately addressed, a significant storm could cause a failure of the approach roadways, necessitating the closure of the bridge, jeopardizing the safety of the residents and visitors on the Island,” said Steve Shapiro, director of communications for the DOT.

Islanders, though, argued the lane closures themselves threatened Island residents and visitors if ambulances were stuck in traffic. “This is about saving lives and protection,” said Long Beach Township Police Chief Anthony Deeley.

Work was completed on the emergency West Thorofare Bridge abutment work on June 14. A contractor asked the DOT for additional daytime lane closures but was turned down.

On Oct. 8, some daytime lanes were again closed and will remain so until the next spring/summer season.

Anybody want to bet some new controversy won’t rear its ugly head at that time?

No. 8: Going Into Labor. Unions, for a number of reasons, aren’t nearly as powerful as they were 50 or 60 years ago, but they’re still out there, especially in the public sector.

Teachers and support staff in the Stafford Township School District had been working without a contract since June 30, 2016. By February 2018 they were lining up – literally – to tell the STSD Board of Education they wanted a new contract with much lower contribution rates for their health insurance packages.

Stafford Township Education Association President Nancy Altman reminded the board that it had given Superintendent of Schools George Chidiac a 1.5 percent contribution rate when it re-worked his contract in July 2017. Why should teachers and support staff have to contribute 10 percent of their salaries for insurance?

Nearly three dozen teachers and staff members followed Altman to the podium at the Feb. 22 BOE meeting. Then, come April 19, hundreds of teachers and workers showed up at a Stafford BOE meeting to once again push for lower insurance contributions.

Things were getting personal, with one BOE member who served on the board’s negotiations team being lambasted for taking a five-week vacation during the middle of negotiations and another being ridiculed for a Facebook post saying she had spent three months of “blood, sweat and tears” working on a contract solution.

“Three months?” wondered Jennifer Martin, a teacher, STEA secretary and negotiations team member. “The STEA has spent hundreds of hours since September 2015. You want to talk about late nights on Facebook? We cannot begin to tell you how many late nights this team has put in the past 2½ years.”

In May, though, a new labor contract was finally inked. It was a four-year deal, retroactive to July 1, 2016, that gave teachers and staff a 2.5 percent salary increase, retroactively, for the first year and a 3 percent increase for the other three years of the contract. More importantly, STEA members will receive steep reimbursements for their health care contributions.

“We’re relieved the process is compete,” said Altman after the May 17 BOE meeting. “It was harder that we thought it should be, but we’re satisfied with the outcome.”

“I’m glad this is over,” said BOE Vice President and contract negotiator Richard Czajkowski after the meeting. “The past few months have been brutal. But now it’s done and we can move on.”

A similar situation is potentially brewing at the Little Egg Harbor School District, where teachers have been working without a contract since June 1.

The Little Egg Harbor Education Association says its members have seen their salaries frozen and have simultaneously had to deal with increasing health benefits premiums, resulting in lower take-home pay. The LEHSD BOE says it faces a significant loss of state funding in the coming years so can’t assume a larger part of its employees’ health insurance costs.

Southern Ocean County nurses also dealt with tough – no, make that extremely tough – contract negotiations in 2018.

Some 300 registered nurses at Manahawkin’s Southern Ocean Medical Center had their contracts expire at the end of July. Their union, Health Professionals and Associated Employees Local 5138, was locked in heated negotiations with SOMC’s parent company, the New Jersey healthcare giant Hackensack Meridian Health.

It took nearly seven months of negotiations for Local 5138 and HMH to reach a contract agreement. Along the way the union fought off a decertification effort that it claimed had been illegally backed by the healthcare corporation. Once the local survived the decertification election – by a huge majority of votes – HMH seemingly caved into the union’s demands in quick order.

The nurses had insisted they were more concerned about patient safety than monetary gains during the contract negotiations. Well, they got what they asked for. True, they got pay increases of up to 2.5 percent and reductions in health insurance premiums. But Hackensack Meridian Health also agreed to hire 14 new nurses at SOMC, reacting to the nurses’ concerns over safe staffing levels.

No. 7: Getting Schooled. The Long Beach Island Consolidated School District and the Pinelands Regional School District were constantly in the news in 2017, so much so that they checked in at No. 1 and No. 2 in last year’s SandPaper Top 20 news stories list. Both districts continued to make headlines in 2018, but a) not nearly as often as the year before and b) sometimes actually had good headlines!

The debate over whether the LBISD should have two schools – the Ethel A. Jacobsen Elementary School in Surf City and the LBI Grade School in Ship Bottom – or one – a renovated and expanded Jacobsen School – dominated Island discussions, and SandPaper editorial pages, in 2017. You would have thought the defeat of a $18.4 million referendum in the fall of 2017, which would have gone the Jacobsen route, would have ended the discussion. It didn’t, at least not totally.

In March, the board of education unanimously voted to retain Frank Little of Owen, Little and Associates in Beachwood, charging him with updating the April 2015 evaluation report of the LBI Grade School that played a role in the decision to go out to referendum. Little told the BOE at its March meeting that the amended report could cost the district somewhere in the $25,000 range.

At its Aug. 21 meeting, the BOE heard that it would cost approximately $5 million to fix the LBI Grade School. But, Little added when reporting to the board, the district is eligible for 40 percent state aid while making repairs, meaning district taxpayers would be left with only a $3 million bill.

“All the damage is in the front wings,” Little said. “It moved, but it’s not in danger of collapse. I am pretty confident we can rehab the school and keep it.”

Check this out – a Ship Bottom resident asked if an upgraded LBI School would be capable of handling the district’s entire student body and staff.

“We’ve gone through multiple scenarios,” answered Superintendent of Schools Peter Kopack. “If we make adjustments, then yes, it would.”

Whoa! Could it be the EJ School and not the LBI Grade School that could eventually be closed? Let’s put it this way: Could the Long Beach Island Consolidated School District be the No. 1 news story in Southern Ocean County once again in 2019?

Meanwhile, things have calmed down considerably at Pinelands. The high school’s classrooms will remain closed for the rest of the 2018-19 school year, but there were no asbestos scares this past fall as in 2017-18, no split sessions, no board meetings packed with angry parents. Sure, students, teachers and staff have had to be flexible, with seventh-graders attending classes in Little Egg Harbor School District classrooms, junior high and senior high students sharing the junior high building (plus attached temporary classroom units, once known as trailers), and many a sporting event being held either in the junior high gym or on the road, while the district’s theatrical performances had to be produced at the Stafford Township Arts Center. But many of the district’s athletic teams had glowing seasons this past fall, and all reports indicated the district is holding its own academically.

Like the LBI School District, it will be interesting to see if Pinelands fades away from the headlines in 2019. If the high school is able to reopen, as planned, in September, great. If it can’t, well, Pinelands could once again vie with LBI Consolidated for a Top 5 ranking. So far, though, so good.

Interestingly, it wasn’t LBI or Pinelands that struggled with health and safety issues this autumn, but rather the Stafford Township School District. Mold was discovered in the McKinley Avenue Elementary School in the late summer, forcing some McKinley students out of their classrooms when school opened. But as soon as the McKinley School was declared safe after weeks’ worth of cleanup and remediation, mold was found in some classrooms of the district’s other four buildings, forcing students to temporarily relocate while cleanup was completed.

No. 6: Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station Closes Early. That’s right, Oyster Creek, the oldest operating nuclear power plant in the nation, shut down in September. Exelon Corp., the Illinois-based utility that owns and operated the generating station in Lacey Township, had been granted a 20-year license renewal by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that would have allowed the plant to operate through April 2029. But Exelon decided to shut it down by Dec. 31, 2019, in an agreement it made with the state of New Jersey. Then, in February, it was announced the company would be taking the plant permanently offline in 2018, citing financial costs and better opportunities for employees.

By gum, the company stuck to its guns and got ’er done. Of course, you can’t just shut down a nuke plant and let it fall apart; you’ve got to do something with the plant’s spent nuclear fuel. In Oyster Creek’s case, that could be headed to New Mexico. Meanwhile, local officials will be hard at work trying to figure out what to replace the plant with. After all, the plant used to be one of the largest employers in Ocean County, and its approximately 800-acre site could be used for gas turbine or wind energy production.

So expect to keep reading about Oyster Creek. But, to repeat, the plant closed down early! How many times do you read about a project being completed early in these days of regulations, law suits and protests?

No. 5: Development Galore on LBI. There’s plenty of building going on around Long Beach Island. As soon as you cross the bridge you see it – Hotel LBI popping up at the gateway to LBI, a housing complex right down the street. Just when you think there’s no room for any new building on the Island, along comes more.

And there seems to be a new emphasis on hotel rooms, condos and apartments instead of single-family homes, which makes sense. If there is little open land left to build on, you want to cram as many money-making units onto available spaces as possible. Hey, development leads to jobs and tax revenues, great things.

But the more land that is covered, the less places for rain to go. See No. 1 in this list.

No. 4: Spodofora Era Comes to an End in Stafford. John Spodofora has been a political force in Stafford Township for decades. He first won a seat on the Stafford Township Council in 1988. He survived the purge of former Mayor Carl Block’s team in 2009 when Democrat John McMenamin’s crew swept the longtime mayor and his council supporters out of office, with Spodofora being the only survivor. Spodofora was then elected as McMenamin’s replacement as mayor in a special election and won reelection in 2012 with over 70 percent of the vote. He was reelected again in 2015. Even before serving in elected office, Spodofora was active in Stafford Township, serving on the planning and zoning boards and earning a reputation as an environmentalist for having the township declared a national tree city, helping put its stormwater management system in place, and cleaning up and opening up Manahawkin Lake for swimming after bathers had been banned for more than a decade.

But Spodofora couldn’t survive a 2018 challenge, and this time the takeover was complete.

In November, Stafford voters elected a totally new slate of candidates. Led by mayoral candidate Greg Myhre, the ticket, which also included council candidates Thomas Steadman, Anthony Guariglia, Michael Pfancook, George Williams, Robert Henken-Siefken and Paul Krier, crushed a Democratic ticket led by mayoral candidate Joe Mangino. Myhre, for example, won 56 percent of the vote to Mangino’s 44 percent.

But the November election was almost a sideshow compared to the June Republican primary. That’s when Myhre and Co. beat Spodofora and every one of his ticket mates in a much closer competition. Myhre, for example, garnered 1,318 votes, or 51.5 percent, to Spodofora’s 1,232 votes, or 48.2 percent.

Considering Stafford Township typically votes for Republicans, the race was as good as over, even though Spodofora shocked many voters in October by resigning from the Regular Republican Club and endorsing Mangino in the general election.

Myhre and his running mates ran a right-wing campaign, calling themselves “The Stafford Conservatives” and saying they were “on a mission to defend Stafford Township from Governor Murphy’s far-left policies; protect residents’ rights; and provide responsible, transparent leadership.” They also came out strong on immigration. “Our governor wants us to ignore federal immigration laws,” said Myhre during the campaign. “We cannot do that. We will not ignore any federal laws. We stand with our local law enforcement, and we want to live in a safe community.”

No. 3: Andy Kim and Jeff Van Drew Elected to Congress. Stafford Township voters might have swept conservatives into office locally, but they – and many other Ocean County voters – couldn’t keep New Jersey’s 2nd and 3rd Congressional Districts from going Democratic in November.

Ocean County, about as Republican an area as you can find outside of the deep South, shares those congressional districts with other, Democrat-leaning counties. The 2nd consists of all or part of eight counties, including Atlantic County, a Democratic stronghold; the 3rd consists of a large part of Ocean County and most of Burlington County, another county with more registered Democrats than Republicans.

The races were still close, especially in the 3rd District, where Kim, a Rhodes scholar and former civilian adviser to Generals David Petraeus and John R. Allen in Afghanistan before becoming a national security adviser to President Barack Obama, defeated Tom MacArthur, a two-term congressman who was instrumental in pushing bills repealing Obamacare and advancing the GOP tax cuts through the House of Representatives, earning 153,473 votes to his opponent’s 149,500. Van Drew, a dentist and longtime lawmaker in Trenton, defeated his Republican opponent, Seth Grossman, an attorney and former Atlantic County freeholder and Atlantic City councilman, by a 136,685-to-116,866 margin in the 2nd District.

The 2nd Congressional District had been represented by retired GOP Congressman Frank LoBiondo since 2003; the 3rd District had been represented by Republicans from 1993 through 2019, save 2009 to 2011, when the late Democrat John Adler served one term. So it was rather surprising to see both districts swinging Democratic at the same time.

No. 2: Plastic Bags Banned in Boston. Yep, as of Dec. 14, 2018, that city banned stores from using single-use plastic bags. But who would have thought Republican-dominated LBI and Stafford Township (see No. 3) would have beat liberal-to-the-max Boston to the punch?

Sure enough, “single use plastic bags” are now banned from shops in Stafford Township and on most of Long Beach Island, where residents tend to look upon them with as much disgust as Boston Brahmins did pornography in the 1950s.

No issue induced more letters – from both supporters and opponents of the bans – to The SandPaper’s editor in 2018 than the plastic bag bans. It wasn’t even close!

Expect plastic to be in the news in the future, and I’m not just talking about moves to ban plastic straws as well. The Chinese are now refusing to take plastic waste – including bottles – from the U.S. Other, poorer, countries may start taking them, but if not, well, plastic bottles are going to start piling up very, very quickly at recycling centers. If you think plastic bags are harmful to the environment, just imagine how harmful an ocean filled with plastic bottles would be.

What’s that? There are huge areas of the oceans already filled with plastic waste?

Get used to the war against plastics. I can imagine a time in the not-too-distant future where drinking from a plastic bottle will get you the same stares and comments as smoking in a crowded restaurant.

No. 1: Flooding. A couple of headlines in the Oct. 17 issue of The SandPaper said it all: “Sixth Street Residents Look for Relief From Flood Events, Oppose Raising of Roadway” and “Beach Haven Council Hoping to Resolve Flooding.”

The lede to the first story read “Surf City Mayor Frances Hodgson isn’t convinced an underground pump system will solve the recurrent flooding on Sixth Street.” The lede to the second said, “For the next year or so, Beach Haven hopes to finally address rainfall and tidal flooding that has plagued the borough’s streets for decades.”

Two headlines about flooding in one issue of the paper. And both stories talked about the recurring nature of flooding.

Sure, flooding isn’t new on LBI. Anybody who has lived on the Island for a year or so knows a heavy rainstorm will flood the bayside streets and possibly close Long Beach Boulevard. The problem is that these days even moderate rains seem to result in police and public works workers putting out barrels on the Boulevard to warn motorists of flooding.

If plastic bag bans attracted more letters to the editor than any other issue in 2018 (see No. 2), weather, flooding and attempts to control flooding garnered more space in SandPaper news reports than any other subject in 2018.

Maybe it was because New Jersey experienced its wettest year on record, according to state climatologist David Robinson. But this writer seems to have noticed the flooding problem, uh, creeping up over the past decade or so, even if you call Superstorm Sandy an outlier. Sure, you expect flooding during a hurricane or a nor’easter. But during a relative rain shower?

Could the cause be climate change, sea level rise and the density of development? Do I dare mention those words in GOP Land?

I could go to the beach and bury my head in the sand. But something tells me my fellow SandPaper reporters and I won’t be able to do so because we’ll be too busy writing stories about flooding in the coming years.

I had trouble deciding whether the plastic bag bans or flooding should be the biggest news story of 2018 in Southern Ocean County. I went with flooding because it stands a big chance of becoming the top story in these parts for years and years.

Reposted from The Sandpaper