CAPE MAY - Cape May politics has been at a rolling boil for several years. Many of the controversies ended up in or were related to the courts.
An example is Robert Sheehan’s removal as chief of police, in 2015, one day before his one-year probationary period ended. Years of litigation followed and Sheehan settled, in 2018, for $800,000 and the right to remain on the force as captain.
A civil litigation involving a 100-acre parcel of wetlands, known as the Sewell Tract, has been bouncing around the court system for almost 30 years. Two deeply entrenched camps in city politics either want the city to help finance the side seeking to bar development of the tract or strongly feel that the city should maintain its distance from the legal proceedings. Votes from Cape May City Council have split in ways that have, so far, kept the city at a distance.
A plan for declaring a redevelopment zone in the city block that contains most of the municipal buildings was so controversial it drew a packed house at a Planning Board meeting, where the plan’s opponents defeated it.
Recently, plans for new facilities for the city’s public safety departments produced two years of debate and dozens of split votes on the council, only to be stalled for lack of the support needed for a bond ordinance.
Two opposing citizen initiatives produced competing bond referendums for the November ballot, a rare occurrence that sent City Solicitor Frank Corrado to the law books to determine what happens if both dueling referendums pass.
In all of these instances and others, feelings run deep and hot, with separate camps doing battle around each issue.
Mayor Clarence Lear was forced to retire from the police force as part of the controversy that ended Sheehan’s term as chief. He ran for mayor and won, in 2016.
It is not unusual for the friction in Cape May politics to produce heat.
Most of the players in the upcoming election for two seats on the governing body were in court Sept. 23 for two virtual hearings before Superior Court Judge James Savio.
At issue was the order of names for the three candidates who are running for the council seat of incumbent Patricia Hendricks. In Cape May, the mayor is elected separately by the voters, even though they are an equal member of the council.
What's the Litigation About?
Cape May City Clerk Erin Burke held a public drawing Sept. 3, broadcast to the city’s Facebook page, to determine the order the candidates would appear on the ballot.
At issue in court was that the ballot’s design, produced by Cape May County Clerk Rita Fulginiti, did not conform to the order dictated by the drawing.
Instead of Hendricks being in the second spot among council candidates, behind drawing winner Mark DiSanto, she was first. This alteration was done to allow Hendricks’ name to be bracketed with Lear, whose name is located on the line for mayoral candidates.
The argument defending that alteration was based on the apparent need to place the two together since they were running as a team. Opponents noted that Hendricks allowed her name to go into the drawing and never filed the paperwork formally declaring a joint status. They also argued that the placement was meant to give Lear and Hendricks, who almost always vote together on council, an advantage if the race is close.
DiSanto had the most to lose, given that the first-place position on the ballot was his, based on the drawing, yet he was joined in a legal action by council candidate Chris Bezaire and mayoral candidate Zack Mullock, in a suit to have the ballot rejected. Both Bezaire and Mullock said they joined the suit based on their strong feelings about the power politics employed by Lear and Hendricks in direct opposition to a fair public drawing.
In the end, Savio allowed the ballots to go out by basing his judgment on the latitude given the county clerk in such matters and the fact that she had a “reason” for her actions.
An appeal was considered but ultimately rejected, according to Mullock, because of the need to get ballots out for the fast-approaching election.
What's the Reaction?
True to the strong feelings that animate so much of the city’s politics, the opponents of the ballot as designed see the experience as more proof of heavy-handed and self-aggrandizing leadership in City Hall.
DiSanto cried “ballot fraud,” saying that the mayor and “his partner” stopped the ballot process because “he and she didn’t like the outcome of the drawing and the position of the candidate line up.” He accused Lear and Hendricks, who is the city’s deputy mayor, of abuse of power. He even called for their “removal from office.”
Bezaire said that the ruling was not “the ultimate outcome we wanted,” adding that he was satisfied that the judge pointed to the failure of Hendricks to follow the proper procedure for requesting that she and Lear be bracketed together, a failure that, he said, was the cause of the case going to court.
“I’m satisfied,” Bezaire said, “that the actions of Mrs. Hendricks were clearly addressed by the judge for all the voters to see.”
Mullock admitted that his name is where it should be on the ballot. He claimed that Lear inappropriately intervened in the ballot process and “instructed our city clerk to bracket he and Mrs. Gray Hendricks.”
Mullock added that he could not stand by “and watch such an obvious injustice.” Mullock feels the case would have been won on appeal, but that time did not allow for that step.
“So, now, we leave it for the court of public opinion,” he said.
Hendricks considers the claims of the other candidates “frivolous and disingenuous.” Claiming that she and Lear are “holding a higher standard for ourselves – which is the opposite of what our opponents are doing,” Hendricks stated that it is “more important” that she and Lear “put our focus and energy toward bettering the community.”
Mayor Lear did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The resolution, in this instance, rests in, perhaps, the only place where it can be achieved - the voters' hands.
To contact Vince Conti, email firstname.lastname@example.org.