WEST WILDWOOD – Commissioners and taxpayers squared off over the issue of challenged voter registrations in an Oct. 7 public meeting conducted via Zoom.
Over 80 voter registrations were reportedly challenged ahead of the November election for Borough Commission by incumbent Commissioner Amy Korobellis, and Debbie Fox, Mayor Christopher Fox’s wife, in what some have called a voter suppression scheme.
Homeowners were required to participate in an Oct. 6 hearing in front of the Cape May County Board of Elections to prove their eligibility, the Press of Atlantic City reported.
John Banning, candidate for Borough Commission, reportedly saw his registration challenged despite the fact he ran against Korobellis in a special election, in 2019, to fill a seat left open when a commissioner resigned mid-term.
At the hearing, 25 challenges were heard, and the board dismissed 23 while upholding two, the report said.
Taxpayers were quick to jump on the issue the next day when commissioners made their first public appearance since the hearings.
Helen Rao, a second homeowner, began questioning Korobellis about her involvement before she was cut off.
“Can I stop you right there?” Korobellis said, stopping Rao mid-question. “This is not the meeting to be political. This is a separate meeting. I’m sorry. I will not answer your question. This is political, and this is not the meeting to talk political or election stuff. I’m sorry. I will not answer any of your questions.”
Fox came to her aid, saying that election questions would not be discussed at borough meetings, insinuating that doing so could get them into legal trouble.
“What is the forum to have a conversation about this?” Rao asked in response, which first drew silence until Solicitor Mary D’Arcy Bittner spoke.
“Mr. Mayor, I would just like to reiterate what you and Commissioner Korobellis had been saying. This forum, by law, is for public comment on governmental issues that affect the public body’s function. To even speculate on another forum for your private business would be inappropriate,” Bittner said.
“Here’s my comment on the upcoming election, because the mayor and commissioner...,” Rao responded before Bittner interrupted her to speak to Donna Frederick, borough clerk and facilitator of the Zoom meeting.
Bittner asked Frederick to mute Rao's audio, citing law that restricts public comments to issues related to the public body’s function.
“I just muted her, solicitor,” Frederick responded.
Rao would cut back in, taking control, and unmuting herself, where she questioned the hypocrisy of the direction, given comments made in prior meetings by commissioners, warning that voter registrations would be closely watched this election season.
At the September public meeting, Commissioner Scott Golden took a moment toward the end to warn the public about fraudulent registrations.
“They’re taking all voter registration very seriously and investigating anything that seems out of the ordinary to them, just to put that out there,” Golden said. Fox added that it is a crime punishable by jail time.
“She keeps overriding me, solicitor,” Frederick said, as Rao’s voice interrupted the proceedings.
Charles Chepek, a summer resident, was infuriated by the borough’s decision to mute Rao, at first mistakenly excoriating Korobellis before shifting his focus to Bittner after being told she asked for Rao to be muted.
“If you understand law and you understand the Constitution, then where is it that a citizen would be censored at a public meeting? You have the opportunity to be patient. You have the opportunity to continue to say, ‘I just don’t care to answer.’ That’s fine, but to take that mute button and use it as a censoring tool against the citizens of this borough.
"What supervisory capacity do you hold? You’re not even an elected official and you’re telling a citizen of this borough that they can no longer speak at a public meeting,” said Chepek, a member of Concerned Taxpayers of West Wildwood, a non-profit watchdog group made up of borough homeowners.
“You can't just scream out from the table of power and say, ‘mute that person,’” Chepek added.
Taxpayers cornered Korobellis on the issue, asking if not here, where they could discuss the challenged registrations. “If not on this meeting, when and where?” a taxpayer demanded.
“Mayor, can you help me out with this?” Korobellis replied.
“Listen, the way I feel is this: We’re a team. We are not going to discuss this,” Fox said. “Not now. The election is in three weeks. The results of the election will tell you whether or not who’s going to win this election, how far it goes. That’s just the way it’s going to be. I’m not going to sit down, have debates with people. I’m not going to ask why these challenges were made, why not.”
“You can only hide for so long. People need to know what’s going on,” another taxpayer insisted.
The Board of Elections will reportedly attempt to reach out to the close to 60 residents whose challenged registrations were not heard last week to arrange a hearing.
In the 2019 election to fill the vacant commission seat, 123 votes were cast for Korobellis, the winner.
“They’re trying to sway an election and that’s not going to work here. We’re not going to go there,” said Fox.
To contact Shay Roddy, email email@example.com.