By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Ocean City will utilize a new tactic as part of a broader strategy to try to prevent large groups of rowdy juveniles from disrupting the pivotal summer tourism season.
During its last meeting of 2022, City Council introduced a lengthy ordinance Thursday that would classify a litany of minor offenses such as curfew violations or littering as a “breach of the peace” to give police more power to detain juveniles who allegedly break local laws.
City Solicitor Dorothy McCrosson told the Council members that police would now have “a little more latitude in dealing with juveniles” who violate the ordinance.
Ocean City Police Chief Jay Prettyman said shore communities have been working with Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland on ways to handle large groups of unruly teens that gather on the beaches, boardwalks or other popular hangouts during the summer.
Sutherland is recommending that Ocean City and other Cape May County beach towns should designate minor crimes in their local ordinances as a “breach of the peace” as part of a new strategy to crack down on troublesome teens, Prettyman said.
“This is another tool in our broad strategy to address juvenile behavior,” Prettyman said in an interview after the Council meeting.
Ocean City will be the first municipality in Cape May County to try the tactic, he noted.
Prettyman explained that offenses classified as a breach of the peace are broadly considered “anything that disrupts the normal flow of life.”
The proposed ordinance introduced Thursday is 22 pages long. It is scheduled for a public hearing and final vote by Council at its Jan. 12 meeting.
The ordinance covers such things as curfew violations, littering, riding bikes on the Boardwalk after hours, excessive noise, graffiti, setting off illegal fireworks and juveniles misrepresenting their age.
Elected officials and police chiefs at the Jersey Shore have complained for two summers in a row that rowdy teens have little to fear now of being arrested, which has emboldened them to commit crimes such as theft, vandalism, underage public drinking and smoking marijuana.
State laws enacted last year as part of Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s juvenile justice reforms put restrictions on police on how far they can go in their interactions with teens.
Instead of placing juveniles under arrest or taking them into custody, officers are required to give them “curbside warnings” for minor crimes such as underage drinking or marijuana possession.
Prettyman said Ocean City’s “breach of the peace” ordinance will not include underage drinking or marijuana consumption because those things are already part of state law.
As he has done repeatedly in the past, Prettyman urged state lawmakers to change the state laws for underage drinking and marijuana use to help police handle the problem.
“We need carve-out legislation for alcohol and marijuana consumption by juveniles,” he said in the interview.
Newly introduced state legislation by three Atlantic County lawmakers would allow police to detain juveniles caught drinking alcohol or using marijuana in public and to notify their parents or legal guardians. The juveniles, though, would not be arrested.
State Sen. Vincent Polistina, Assemblyman Don Guardian and Assemblywoman Claire Swift, all Republicans, are hopeful that their legislation will also garner support from Democratic lawmakers to get it approved by the Legislature.
They stressed that elected officials do not want to saddle juveniles with a criminal record for possessing alcohol or using marijuana. Their proposed legislation says juveniles under the age of 18 would be given a written warning and taken to the police station under “temporary custody” before they are released to their parents or legal guardians.
Tougher laws targeting rowdy teens and young adults at the Jersey Shore gained greater urgency after an unsanctioned pop-up H2oi car rally in Wildwood on Sept. 24 turned into chaos in the streets, resulting in the deaths of two people struck by a fleeing driver who was later arrested and indicted.
In other business Thursday, City Council voted 4-2 to approve the city’s $146.2 million, five-year capital plan that will finance an array of infrastructure improvements, including a new public safety building.
Councilmen Bob Barr and Jody Levchuk cast the dissenting votes. They said they have no objections about the proposed projects included in the capital plan, but they wanted more time to discuss it with Mayor Jay Gillian and his administration.
“I just would prefer much more personal communication between all of us before we’re expected to pass the capital plan,” Levchuk said.
Gillian assured the Council members during the meeting that they would be closely involved with the capital plan as it moves along from concept to reality.
“Nothing gets done without you guys,” he said.
The capital plan is considered a sweeping blueprint for city projects that may be built from 2023 to 2027. Later on, Council will have to approve funding for the individual projects and the construction contracts.
Altogether, the proposed spending for citywide capital projects in 2023 would come to nearly $54.6 million. In 2024, the capital plan proposes $46.8 million in spending, then $15.1 million in 2025, $17.3 million in 2026 and $12.4 million in 2027.
Highlights for 2023 include a series of road construction projects across town, drainage improvements to reduce flooding, dredging of the back bays, beach replenishment, upgrades to the Boardwalk and a makeover for some of the municipal playgrounds.
One of the proposed major projects is an updated airport terminal that would also house a restaurant and a pro shop for the adjacent Ocean City Municipal Golf Course.
Berger Realty owner Leon Grisbaum, an avid pilot who has been flying for nearly 75 years, is donating $3 million to help build the new terminal. The city plans to combine Grisbaum’s $3 million donation with $5 million of its own funding and government grants to help build the project in 2024.
The new facility will be named the “Leon and Elizabeth Grisbaum Airport Terminal” in recognition of the donation.
The single-most expensive project in the capital plan would be a new public safety building. It would house the police department and cost an estimated $25 million.
In 2020, Gillian proposed building a combined headquarters for the police and fire departments at 550 Asbury Ave. The estimated cost was $42 million. Council balked at the proposal, calling the price too expensive.
Frank Donato, the city’s chief financial officer, told Council that plans for a combined police and fire department headquarters are now dead.
Instead, the latest plans call for demolishing the existing police headquarters at Eighth Street and Central Avenue and constructing a new public safety building on the same site.
The city is proposing to spend $500,000 in 2023 to design the project and would build it in 2024 at an estimated cost of $25 million.