CM STORY - Candidates Forum.jpg

From left, Mark DiSanto, Chris Bezaire, Patricia Gray Hendricks, Clarence Lear, and Zack Mullock express their views during a candidate forum moderated by the League of Women Voters Sept. 28. 

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CAPE MAY - The Chamber of Commerce of Greater Cape May held a candidate forum Sept. 28, in Congress Hall’s main ballroom. Indoor gathering and social distancing requirements limited in-person attendance. The chamber made a video of the forum available on YouTube the following day (https://bit.ly/3l8337o).

Cape May's election features two mayoral candidates: incumbent Clarence “Chuck” Lear and Zack Mullock, a Cape May City Council member and local businessman.

One council seat is also on the ballot. The contenders are incumbent Patricia Gray Hendricks, deputy mayor, Chris Bezaire, a local real estate agent, and Mark DiSanto, a fishing boat captain.

In a program run by the League of Women Voters, the format allowed for a moderator to ask specific questions, submitted by chamber members, to each candidate. There was no direct debate or rebuttal after each candidate responded to the questions.

Race for Mayor

In an opening statement, Mullock highlighted his and his family’s long history with the city. Claiming that the city was “headed in the wrong direction,” Mullock called for policies friendly to the city’s historic heritage and its business community, which, he said, was built by entrepreneurs and small business owners. 

He accused the current administration of insensitivity regarding tax increases, pointing to this year’s budget process, which, he said, left the city with appropriations dependent on unrealistic revenue expectations.

Lear ran through his record, citing progress on the Lafayette Street Park, a partnership with the county to use the historic and long-empty Franklin Street School, as a branch of the county library system, and the first stages of the sea wall’s design.Lear also referenced the recently completed master plan, which, he said, will place the city in a good position for future projects.

Responding to a question asking for each candidate’s vision for preserving Cape May’s historic character while also controlling development in “sensitive areas,” Lear reflected onhis time in office, citing support for curtailing development in the Sewell Tract, progress on the inventory of historic properties and using the state’s Rossi List to protect open city property from future development.

Mullock argued that Cape May’s “future lies in preserving its past.” He, again, emphasized his family's close ties to the city’s historic character through owning the Chalfonte and their leadership in creating the Harriet Tubman Museum.

Mullock said he grew up in a bed-and-breakfast, showing his sensitivity to the issues confronting historic preservation. 

“A different group of people came to the city this summer,” he added, arguing that progress in attracting new groups of visitors is important, but “preservation is extraordinarily important.”

Candidates were asked how they planned to maintain the budget in an age where tourism may decline. The moderator stated that tourism revenues into city coffers help keep the burden on property owners reasonable.

“We all depend on tourism,” Mullock said. He described the activities he directly worked on this year to aid local businesses, including drafting the rule changes that allowed expanded outdoor dining. 

He returned to a theme he developed throughout the forum - the need for appropriate aid for local businesses within a context that is sensitive to Cape May’s historic character. 

Speaking of the city’s residents, Mullock said concern for business interests must stay in balance with sensitivity to the needs of the community.

Lear spoke of the quick and decisive action the city took this year to help local businesses facing losses due to the pandemic. “We acted quickly,” and several businesses survived because of the decisive actions, he argued. 

Lear spoke of leadership at a time when leadership was needed. “We didn’t look to see what each action cost” because there wasn’t time for that analysis.

A part of the question concerned the potential tax burden a decline in tourist revenue might have on residential property owners, which neither candidate addressed. 

Both mayoral candidates supported increased shared-service agreements that might help reduce the financial burden on taxpayers. 

Lear cited existing arrangements regarding police and shared construction office services between the city, West Cape May and Cape May Point. He argued that the city is always open to exploring the possibilities of new arrangements. 

As an example, he spoke of efforts to meet the recent challenge in soaring recycling costs through an arrangement with Lower Township. “That did not work out, so we went another way,” he said.

Mullock challenged Lear on the mayor’s statement that in-house recycling is saving the city $1 million, suggesting a different approach was needed. Mullock also called for negotiating long-term contracts for police services with the other Cape Island municipalities. 

“With longer-term contracts, as long as 25 years, we could build new public safety facilities” that reflect the level of service and revenue coming from those municipalities, he said.

Both candidates argued opposing positions regarding the development of new facilities for firefighters, police, and other emergency personnel. They agreed that the current facilities must be replaced.

Lear supports the combined public safety building on land, along Franklin and Washington streets. Mullock supports separate facilities, beginning immediately with a new firehouse.

Each took shots at financial assumptions behind the proposed $15 million combined building, as opposed to the $5 million proposed firehouse, with a new police facility to follow.

Two competing referendums are on the ballot, and the vote for each referendum is likely to track closely to the vote for mayor.

In closing statements, both candidates appealed for votes in ways consistent with their responses to questions.

Lear asked voters to “judge our record by the results.” He pointed to his fiscal conservatism and said that the city built a strong fund balance during his years as mayor.

Mullock challenged the record, saying that it has been four years without flood mitigation effort. He asked that voters support him as a candidate who understands Cape May’s character.

Race for Council

In her opening remarks, Hendricks cited her 35-year history in the city, saying “home is where your heart is, and mine is in Cape May.” 

She spoke of her strong support for ensuring that children from the Coast Guard base have a safe path to school. She also emphasized her commitment to safeguarding the city’s beaches. 

Bezaire attacked the current council for its long meetings that feature “bickering and finger-pointing” instead of results. He argued that instead of “civility, communication, and leadership,” the current administration provided “deception, combativeness, and a lack of cooperation.” He said he is running to bring government “back together.”

DiSanto said that, as a “professional sportfishing captain,” he saw a need to “invest in the harbor.” Putting money and energy into making the Cape May marina resort a reality would solve many of the city’s problems, he argued.

Over several questions, Hendricks’ path echoedLear’s, asking to be judged on the record of the last four years.

Asked to explain her campaign slogan, “Working for you and with you,” she cited efforts to introduce performance parking, to implement the successful jitney service, and to improve beach safety. “That is putting community first,” she said.

Responding to a suggestion that the city put meters along Beach Avenue, from Philadelphia Avenue to Poverty Beach, Hendricks reminded the moderator that the same suggestion was part of a referendum voted down by the residents about a decade ago.

When asked her plans for rejuvenating the area “around the Convention Center,” Hendricks agreed that a change was needed, but noted the future of the Beach Theatre property, which was purchased by a developer before the pandemic and sits idle. 

“We need to figure out what we can do in the Convention Hall area,” she said, stopping short of offering a specific vision.

 Regarding parking, Hendricks said, “Addressing the parking issue is more difficult than just calling for a garage.” She spoke of the expense of building and running a parking garage on a year-round basis. 

"We are adding extra attractions, and they will need parking,” she admitted.

On the issue of the public safety building vs. a dedicated firehouse, Hendricks sided with Lear. She called the $5 million firehouse proposal, supported by Mullock and Councilwoman Stacy Sheehan, “a phantom proposal.” 

Citing the work of the citizen community that supports the combined safety building, Hendricks asked voters to “listen to the community voice.”

On the future for outdoor dining and similar measures from summer, Hendricks focused on the “team effort” that went into what the city did, in 2020. She spoke of a “big job” accomplished. She did not address her vision for the same flexibility, in summer 2021.

Bezaire responded to the same series of questions.

On his campaign slogan, “A Candidate for all the People,” Bezaire said the city was missing leadership that sought cooperation instead of division. Throughout the event, he tried to position himself as a bridge-builder and a candidate who would seek results.

He said he didn't support the placement of parking meters along the far eastern part of Beach Avenue. He called for greater use of remote lots and reducing the need for cars in the city through other transportation options.

On Convention Hall, Bezaire argued for greater use of “Cape May’s big asset” in the area, the beach. Saying that the city needed more “out-of-the-box” thinking, he called for more entertainment programming on the beach. 

Bezaire also rejected a wait-and-see approach to the Beach Theatre property, calling for city intervention with the developer. He said the city needs to get involved in planning the property’s use.

On the public safety facilities, Bezaire said both proposals contained in the dueling referendums represent “starting points.” He said neither set of numbers can be trusted yet. 

The council needs to take the results of the vote and get busy implementing a plan that is by the bonding authority approved by the voters.

Concerning the future of outdoor dining and similar emergency measures implemented this year, Bezaire spoke of his service on the task force that developed the county reopening plan. 

He said he was a supporter of the city’s open-container policy. “We have the winter to evaluate what we learned and what we should do, in 2021,” he said.

DiSanto, whose campaign slogan is simply “Captain,” said the slogan stood for leadership, and “I’m a leader.”

DiSanto’s focus in response to several questions was on his call for greater support for the marina resort. He saw it as the answer to the city’s tourism issues because “it will draw people to the city” and create “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

DiSanto rejected the idea of new parking meters on parts of Beach Avenue as a waste of time and money. The answer, he said, was to pave over the Lafayette Street Park area and use it as a parking lot.

Rejuvenating the Convention Center area brought him back to the marina where fishing competitions would bring “hundreds of boats.” He argued the people would stay and spend in the city, also calling for more concerts and activities at the Convention Center and surrounding area.

DiSanto saw the joint public safety building proposal as impractical and too expensive. He supports separate fire and police facilities but wants a sharing of the expense by West Cape May, Cape May Point, and the Coast Guard.

On the future of outdoor dining, DiSanto argued that the city must provide more parking spaces for restaurant table space.

In closing remarks, Bezaire said there was not enough positive change in the last four years. He complained of unnecessary property tax increases. As a candidate who sees himself as a unifier, Bezaire called on others to “set aside personal agendas.”

Hendricks asked voters to “explore the facts and not the assertions.” She said the city needs experience in government, individuals who will work hard for the residents, and leadership in challenging times. She said that she and Lear fit that bill.

DiSanto used his closing remarks to push for the marina project, presenting its success almost as a tide that would lift all boats.

To contact Vince Conti, email vconti@cmcherald.com.

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