In all my decades covering government meetings, the Cape May County Freeholders' meeting July 9 was the worst. It began, as do all their meetings, with a moment of silence. During that time it's assumed a prayer is offered. Heads were bowed, hands were folded; and then the mood shifted from the sublime into a down-and-out fracas.
For those who missed it by watching TV, the five-member, all-Republican board censured one of its members, E. Marie Hayes. One censure was "based on an allegation of retaliatory conduct," according to a statement from Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton. The other was "based on a violation of the county's Conflict of Interest Policy."
This night had a "packed courtroom," so to speak. The four walls were filled with Hayes' advocates and supportive GOP committee people. Her brother spoke on her behalf.
The air was rife with anger and distrust, and could easily be sliced with a dull knife.
Was this the board of freeholders who are usually so chummy? No more. There was a change, as when autumn chills the air and we know summer is gone.
The ill feelings have festered since Clerk of the Board Elizabeth Bozzelli was given a second title back in October 2018. That's when Hayes and Freeholder Will Morey voted against Bozzelli’s appointment while peers Leonard Desiderio, Jeffrey Pierson, and Thornton gave her a thumbs-up.
Then all hell broke loose. Bozzelli alleged workplace retaliation by Hayes for not shifting her son to another department. Hayes cited the secret investigation into the allegations, and noted she was the subject, yet was not interviewed, nor given sufficient time to review the findings, nor to take notes.
The words "nepotism" and "retaliation" began bouncing off the walls like ping-pong balls.
Such words are the stuff of anonymous Spout Offs, not verbiage uttered by card-carrying GOP members sitting on the elevated dais before a room packed with mostly with Republican onlookers. This was a nightmare that couldn't be happening. This was fratricide. Could this campaign gift have been better orchestrated by the Democrat challengers who want to occupy the seats where Thornton and Hayes sit?
After all, these are the same five who, it is widely and historically expected, will stand shoulder-to-shoulder tomorrow at the 50th annual Cape May County 4-H Fair and serve, with toothy smiles, barbecued chicken, corn, lima beans and ice cream to the masses. Or was that the old Board of Chosen Freeholders?
It's been cited in Spout Offs that the county government is replete with family and friends. It's a "don't ask, don't tell" atmosphere. One day a new desk will appear in an office and, low and behold, a new smiling face will occupy the seat.
Employees secretly and immediately run a "lineage check." They usually land on the fact, ah, yes; it's not what you know. But they know silence is golden if one wants a solid future there. Such stuff is certainly not new or unique to Cape May County, but it's just not right.
Those on this side are the seemingly anointed. They get the raises and promotions. For them life in government is good. Those on the other side get "equal" treatment, which is more like cookie crumbs than a big hunk of cake.
On this southern peninsula, where "good" year-round jobs are scarce, it certainly helps one's job possibilities to be related to an official, or to at least have "friends." Such an uncomfortable fact seemed central to the ill feelings which surfaced like white water in a fish feeding frenzy that night.
The public was told, for the first time, that there had been a six-month workplace investigation, with 17 people interviewed, at a cost of thousands of dollars.
Let's silence the rhetoric of the evening, and focus on nepotism in government and ethics.
Hiring one's family may work in the private sector, but in government, it makes for a very uncomfortable workplace. If the big guy or gal's son or daughter is your boss, and you feel wronged, there are few places to turn, at least without damaging your chance for continued employment.
Why isn't there an outright prohibition on hiring one's family members in government? It would certainly make more places for those who are more qualified, but unconnected.
Ethics in government? It's almost a joke. Play fair? Only if there's a dollar somewhere. Ethics, it seems, is defined by wearing ballet shoes in order to stay this side of the law.
Down deep, each one of us knows what's right and what's wrong. What happened July 9 was troubling on both sides of the aisle. It shouldn't happen again.