CAPE MAY - Infrastructure concerns, county spending, nepotism, questions of inclusion and more were on the table for a debate among the five Cape May County freeholder candidates Oct. 14.
Incumbents Will Morey, of Wildwood Crest, and Jeffrey Pierson, of Upper Township, are running as Republicans for an all-Republican board.
Democratic candidates Brendan Sciarra and Elizabeth Casey argue that it is past time for some other opinions in the county government. Sciarra, who owns a Wildwood restaurant, is also Cape May County’s Democratic chairman. Casey, who made an unsuccessful run for a seat on the board last year, is an attorney who lives in Upper Township.
Ryan Troiano, a fifth candidate, running as an independent, also participated in the debate. He spoke of his service as a Wildwood firefighter. He has been a Republican throughout his life but decided to run as an independent this year.
That means he will not be obligated to any party or political machine, he argued at the debate, which was presented by the Cape May County League of Women Voters, a non-partisan organization celebrating a century this year. It was founded shortly before the 19th Amendment was ratified, enshrining women’s right to vote in the U.S.
The organization’s debates have long been a touchstone in Cape May County politics, held for years in the historic Courthouse building, on Main Street, in Court House, with partisans for the various candidates and undecided voters crowded into the hard-wooden seats.
This year, as with many traditions, things were different. The event was held at Congress Hall, in Cape May, with strict limits to the number of people who could attend in person. Only candidates, their invited guests, and league members were allowed in the room.
Instead, those interested could view the debate remotely, which included live streaming on the county league’s Facebook page (https://bit.ly/3j6CQEO) and other places online. Questions from the public were submitted in advance. Candidates were seated at separate tables at a distance from each other. Hundreds have viewed the debate since it occurred.
Casey and Sciarra faulted the county government on infrastructure, arguing that many bridges are in poor shape, and on spending. The incumbents cited ongoing initiatives to build and strengthen the county economy and said extensive infrastructure improvements are underway, with additional work in the planning stages.
Morey said the county’s tax rate is one of New Jersey’s lowest. Pierson also questioned how the Democrats could fault the incumbents for spending too much and for not spending enough on infrastructure. The county has to set priorities, he said.
“It’s reallocation,” said Casey. “It’s not spending $265,000 on settlement fees for lawsuits. It’s not building a jail where that money could have gone to bridges. It’s not wasting the money.”
As the pandemic restructured the way the debate proceeded, the ongoing crisis with COVID-19 played heavily into the debate, with questions asked about how the county will recover from the punishing economic slump connected to the virus.
“We need a strong voice in Trenton,” Casey said. She told those gathered that she and Sciarra advocated for small local businesses and indoor dining. She said it was unfair that shoppers could go to a big box store but were not allowed in mom-and-pop stores.
Cape May County’s numbers have been low relative to the rest of New Jersey, she said, which should be considered separately from other areas of the state.
“You’ve got to understand that these COVID laws are directed by the governor of New Jersey, and there are things that you just can’t do,” said Pierson. There have been daily calls to Gov. Phil Murphy’s office from county officials, he said.
“We are constantly pressuring him to do more here in Cape May County,” Pierson said.
Troiano said his work as a firefighter put him on the front lines of COVID-19, like EMTs, police officers, nurses, and others.
“It’s been tough,” he said. It would remain stressful for those finishing their shifts, who had reason to fear bringing the virus home to their families.
“Then, as I’m driving home, I see a friend who owns a business. I ask them how they’re doing. Down 80%. Probably going to shut the doors. Probably going to close up,” he said. “I’m not dodging the question, but it’s easy for me to Monday morning quarterback. What I will say is you’ve got to be firm. Stand up to it. We’re here to represent Cape May County. We’re not here to represent New Jersey.”
Sciarra cited his connections in Trenton. He thanked essential employees and first responders.
“I think I’ve probably been the most vocal behind the scenes to make sure Cape May County is not North Jersey,” he said. “I might not do everything with bells and whistles, but I fought for Cape May County.”
That included reaching out to local businesses to see what they needed, he said.
“You know, Brendan, you criticized the freeholders for not doing enough, and yet you’re the Democratic Party chair. You have all these contacts, but you criticize us for not moving the ball forward,” Morey replied to Sciarra. Morey said he was pleased with the county’s handling of the crisis, including the task force that included local businesses and elected officials.
It also included representatives from the health sector, he said.
“We wanted to make sure that when we presented a plan to the governor, it wasn’t going to be with the health sector saying, ‘no, no, no, that doesn’t make sense,’” he said. It is important to be part of the solution, he said. He cited a Cape May business owner, Meghan Protasi.
“She said 'you know what? We can do hard things,'” he said.
Casey suggested the county should work to draw more year-round residents, especially as remote working becomes the norm.
“COVID has changed our economy, and I don’t think it’s going to go back,” she said. “We need to market specifically to families who are fleeing the big cities.”
The debate remained cordial for the most part, with Troiano, at one point, saying he liked every candidate up there, but there were a few dramatic moments. They included a response to a question about nepotism, an accusation that has long dogged county government.
Pierson said the county hires the person best qualified for the position. Morey said the county is a small community.
“We don’t say, 'well, you can’t work here because your cousin, aunt, uncle, whoever it might be, has a position here,'” Morey said. The county favors residents, he said. “People have to earn the job.”
“Nepotism has always been an issue in Cape May County,” Sciarra said, adding that the county should choose the best person. “It’s been the good old boys' network that’s always gotten hired in Cape May County. We have to look at that.”
He said that’s been the case for 30 years.
Troiano, whose father served for years as Wildwood’s mayor, said he’s dealt with questions of nepotism throughout his career, but he cited earlier comments from Pierson, who stated that laws governing county jobs cover that issue.
“Nepotism isn’t a problem in the county. Political patronage is a problem,” he said. “You have a better chance of getting a job or a position if you’re part of a party than if you’re part of a bloodline, and I think that’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”
Without mentioning a name, Troiano cited Michael Donohue’s appointment as the county administrator.
“He used to be a judge. He’s now a chairman. He’ll be in another position next,” Troiano said.
Morey asked for a chance for rebuttal, which had been reserved for mentions of the candidate by name. The moderator was set to give Morey 30 seconds when he said it was about the freeholder board.
“We’re all referring to the freeholder board,” cut in Casey. He was told he could address it during his closing statement.
“I don’t want to do it then. Do I have to?” he asked.
“Not to be a stickler for the rules, but I am a lawyer,” Casey said. She argued that nepotism and cronyism continue to be a persistent problem in the county, even though there are prohibitions against direct supervision.
“We have people who have jobs, in Cape May County, even though they fail miserably at their jobs, and because they’re family members, they get moved throughout Cape May County,” she said. It’s bad for employee morale, she said.
There were other digs throughout the evening. Morey worked on bringing a tech village to the Cape May County Airport, aimed at drawing new companies to the county and provide jobs not directly linked to tourism.
“Not everybody has an airplane, so they’re not really focused on the airport,” Troiano said.
Morey is a pilot, but he said the airport was chosen as the site for the tech project because it had the most land and the most potential.
Other questions covered diversity in the county.
Morey said the hiring practices in the county are not biased but said the perception may be different from the reality, and that ought to be addressed. There is likely not a company in the nation that is not evaluating that question after this year’s impassioned calls for racial justice, he said.
Pierson said the county does a good job of hiring a diverse workforce.
“I can think of four of my directors who are female,” he said. “I think we do fairly well. Can we do better? Of course, we can always do better.”
Troiano said he was raised to treat everyone equally, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. At the same time, he argued against hiring anyone just for the sake of diversity.
“By trying to include some, you’re excluding others,” he said. “For me, the most-qualified person is the one who should get the job.”
Casey said biases are not always conscious or deliberate. She said she recognizes that she was speaking from a position of privilege, as a white woman.
“We need to look at implicit bias,” she said. “It can’t just be what college you went to and who you know.”
To contact Bill Barlow, email email@example.com.