By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
City Council interviewed four prospective candidates Thursday night to fill a vacancy on the seven-member governing body, but fell short of the number of votes needed to appoint someone to the position.
The vacancy was created when former Second Ward Councilman Antwan McClellan resigned in January to take a seat in the state Assembly following his election to the New Jersey Legislature in November.
Council had the option of leaving the seat vacant until Ocean City’s municipal election in May or appointing someone to fill the remainder of McClellan’s unexpired term to July 1. In January, the Council members agreed to seek candidates for the position through an interview process.
Four candidates, Gabe Staino, Tom Rotondi, Christopher Robertson and Kyle Gillen, all residents of the Second Ward, came in for private interviews with the Council members before the public portion of the meeting began Thursday night.
However, Council only had four members present for the meeting because Councilman Michael DeVlieger was sick and Councilman Tony Wilson was away on business.
Council members Peter Madden, Karen Bergman and Bob Barr voted to appoint Staino, but Councilman Keith Hartzell abstained. City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson explained that at least four votes were needed by law to appoint someone to the vacancy, so Staino did not get the open seat.
Hartzell is an at-large councilman who lives in the Second Ward. He said he abstained because he did not want it to appear that he was endorsing any particular candidate where he lives by voting to appoint them to the open seat.
“I really do believe that each person brought something great to the table,” Hartzell said of the four candidates. “It would be very, very hard to make a decision.”
Hartzell and other members of Council urged the four candidates to run for the Second Ward seat in the May election.
“We had four excellent candidates this evening,” Barr said. “Everyone brought something unique to the table.”
All of Council’s four ward seats will be up for grabs in the municipal election. If someone had been appointed to fill McClellan’s former seat, it would have allowed that person to run as the sitting Council member in the Second Ward – in effect, giving them incumbent status in the election. However, the seat will be wide open now for the election.
The Second Ward encompasses the south side of Fourth Street to the north side of 12th Street from the beach to the bay. It includes residential areas, the Boardwalk, the downtown business district and the hotel-motel zone.
“It’s the most diverse ward in the whole town,” said Bergman, while calling the Second Ward the “heartbeat” of the community.
An appointment to Council is not unprecedented. Bergman went through the appointment process in 2015 to fill the unexpired term of former at-large Councilman Michael Allegretto, who resigned to become the city’s director of Community Services.
Bergman originally served as a Second Ward councilwoman from 2008 to 2012, but chose not to seek re-election in 2012. She returned to the governing body in 2015, when she was unanimously appointed by Council to fill Allegretto’s vacant seat leading up to the 2016 election. She followed up her victory in the 2016 election by winning a full four-year term in the 2018 election.
In other business Thursday, a handful of residents joined with local environmental advocate Donna Moore in urging the city to add local recreation sites to a list of public areas that will receive “eco-friendly” landscaping.
As part of a new landscaping contract for parks, playgrounds and other public areas, eight of 32 sites scattered around town will be set aside for organic alternatives to pesticides and fertilizers. The contract is expected to be awarded in March.
City Business Administrator George Savastano said the move is in response to suggestions from Moore and other local residents for the city to use eco-friendly measures to take care of the grass, shrubbery and flowers on public property.
“We appreciate the suggestions. We took them seriously,” Savastano said in an interview after the meeting.
As she often does at Council meetings, Moore showed up Thursday night waving hand-written signs that dramatize her health warnings about chemical pesticides. Other residents joined with her in holding the signs.
Moore said pesticides containing toxic chemicals can cause cancer, contaminate the groundwater and harm Ocean City’s marine life.
She has been urging Council to have the city’s landscaping contractors use environmentally friendly methods to control weeds on parks, playgrounds and other public grounds. She wants all of the city’s recreation fields added to the list of eco-friendly landscaping areas to create a “healthier family island.”
One resident, Georgina Shanley, implored Council to listen to Moore. She said Moore is not trying to fight with anyone in the city.
“She’s just trying to make this a healthier community for everybody,” Shanley said.
Savastano said the city’s recreation sites will not be among the eight eco-friendly landscaping areas in the new contract. However, he stressed that the recreation sites remain safe for residents and guests.
“The products we use are safe,” he said in the interview.
Also Thursday, Council tabled three bond ordinances totaling $11.9 million to purchase three pieces of property that would be combined into one large swath of public open space.
The land is bordered by 16th and 17th streets between Simpson and Haven avenues and includes the former Perry-Egan Chevrolet dealership lot. A large chunk of the property is proposed for a 22-lot housing development by brothers Jerry and Harry Klause, owners of Klause Enterprises.
Mayor Jay Gillian and City Council want to buy the land to protect it from densely packed housing construction that would add to the town’s overdevelopment. They envision it becoming a major part of a large corridor of open space stretching from 15th to 20th streets.
Negotiations have begun between the city and property owners for the land. However, the city is leaving open the possibility of using its condemnation powers to seize the land if negotiations fail. If that happens, the matter would end up in the courts and a judge would decide the price for the land.
The three bond ordinances will put the money in place to buy the property, but they were tabled Thursday because Council lacked the “super-majority” of at least five votes needed by law to approve them, McCrosson said.
The ordinances will be considered at a future meeting.