By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
With some laughter, a few tears and plenty of hugs, City Council said an emotional goodbye Thursday night to Tony Wilson during his last meeting with the governing body that he served on for nine years.
The Council meeting was the first one in three months that included members of the public sitting in the audience. Since April, the meetings had been held online and by teleconference during the height of the coronavirus pandemic in New Jersey.
With Gov. Phil Murphy easing some of the state’s coronavirus restrictions on public gatherings, Council was able to welcome an in-person audience for Thursday’s meeting at the Stainton Senior Center.
Chairs were spaced far apart to observe social distancing and most people wore a face covering. The meeting was held at the Stainton Senior Center because it offered more room than the relatively small confines of the Council chambers at City Hall.
The meeting included the adoption of the 2020 municipal budget and final approval of a nearly $16 million bond ordinance to finance an array of public projects, but Council’s final farewell to Wilson dominated the proceedings.
Wilson, who had represented the Third Ward since 2011, lost his re-election bid in May to challenger Jody Levchuk, a Boardwalk businessman who will be sworn in on July 1 when Council reorganizes.
“The long and short of it is, this has been a great ride,” Wilson said, summing up his tenure on the seven-member body.
Holding back tears at times, Wilson thanked his two children, Tony Jr. and Julia, his parents, his fellow Council members and the city’s taxpayers for the support they have given him over the years.
“The people I served with were such a blessing in my life,” he said.
The Council members spoke of their respect, admiration, friendship and love for Wilson. A proclamation was read by Council President Peter Madden in Wilson’s honor, praising him for his involvement with the city’s unprecedented levels of infrastructure improvements, flood-mitigation projects, the Boardwalk’s reconstruction and dredging programs.
“His influence on this Council has been exceptional,” said Councilman Keith Hartzell, one of Wilson’s closest friends.
First Legislative District Assemblyman Antwan McClellan, who served on Council before winning election in November to state office, also spoke of his deep friendship with Wilson. The two exchanged hugs after McClellan finished his remarks.
“We had a great eight years,” McClellan told Wilson of their time together on Council. “We’re going to have a great 30, 40, 50 more.”
McClellan’s former Second Ward seat on Council will be filled by Tom Rotondi, who ran unopposed in the May municipal election and will be sworn in July 1.
Wilson, meanwhile, was known for combining a sense of humor with sharp negotiating skills to get things done on Council.
“One of the things you learn up here is that you can have disagreements, but you first have to bury the hatchet,” Wilson said.
Councilman Michael DeVlieger credited Wilson with reviving the city’s dredging program to clear out the shallow, sediment-choked lagoons along the back bays for boaters.
“It was brutally needed and it wouldn’t have happened without you,” DeVlieger said to Wilson about the dredging program.
Councilman Bob Barr said Wilson was always able to make him laugh, but also noted that he was a “ruthless negotiator.”
Alluding to some of the tough negotiations he had with Wilson, Mayor Jay Gillian spoke of the “spirited conversations” the two men had over the years.
“It’s been a long journey. There’s always the good and the bad. Keep your head up high,” Gillian said to Wilson.
In parting comments, Councilwoman Karen Bergman told Wilson, “We’re really, really going to be sorry to see you go.”
Also Thursday, Council gave final approval to the $80.5 million municipal budget for 2020. The budget, which the mayor revised after the coronavirus outbreak struck, keeps local property taxes stable.
Originally, there were plans for a half-penny increase in the tax rate, but Gillian had his administration revamp the spending plan to avoid any tax increase.
Frank Donato, the city’s finance director, said Gillian did not want to cause any “undue burden” for taxpayers at a time when people may be struggling with their finances because of the pandemic.
“I think we’ve got a good plan in place to take everything into consideration that we could,” Donato said of the budget.
In other business, Council approved a $15.9 million bond ordinance to fund a series of municipal projects throughout town.
Donato explained to Council that the bulk of the funding, or $11.5 million, will pay for road reconstruction, drainage upgrades and new pumping stations as part of the city’s flood-mitigation strategy.