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14 Wildwood Commission Candidates Make Their Cases at Chamber Forum

Christopher South
All 14 candidates for the Wildwood Board of Commissioners spoke at the ‘Meet the Candidates Night’ sponsored by the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce at the Wildwoods Convention Center, Oct. 24.

By Christopher South

WILDWOOD – Wildwood voters got to hear from the 14 candidates for the board of commissioners Tuesday, Oct. 24, and will now have to choose three of them in the Nov. 7 election.

All 14 candidates accepted an invitation to speak at the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce’s Meet the Candidates night, held at the Wildwoods Convention Center. They each had seven minutes to make their presentations.

The field of candidates includes all three commissioners who began the current term, plus former commissioners, former Wildwood employees and candidates making a first attempt at public office.

About 70 people attended the event. The chamber video-recorded the event and has made it available on the chamber’s website, gwcoc.org.

While Commissioner Steve Mikulski highlighted his record as the director of public safety, running mate Ernie Troiano Jr. addressed the indictment of himself, Mikulski and former Mayor Pete Byron on charges of misusing the state health benefits program. Troiano said people had asked how the three could run for commissioner when they were under indictment.

“We’re running because we absolutely, positively did nothing wrong,” he said.

Byron did not comment on the indictment, but instead listed the projects begun or completed under his tenure as commissioner and mayor, saying it was his building a relationship with Gov. Phil Murphy that resulted in Wildwood’s getting $20 million over five years for boardwalk reconstruction.

Candidates’ names were drawn for speaking order, and Todd Kieninger, who is running with Deputy Mayor Krista Fitzsimons and Phil Swetsky as a team, ended up speaking first. Kieninger said he and his wife originally moved to Wildwood because it was more affordable than other communities. He said Wildwood has a lot of potential that is not being realized. He said Fitzsimons had worked on fixing a lot of the city’s problems, and he wanted to help continue on that path.

Edward Tito Arroyo spoke next and stressed public safety and public service. He said he would help the city invest in the latest technology for police and fire services and spoke about being accountable, transparent and available as a commissioner. He stressed making Wildwood a place for families again. He said Wildwood needs commissioners who are interested in the community and not just themselves.

Mikulski said he and Troiano have 22 years of government experience between them. He said he operates a year-round business in Wildwood and has a stake in the community, but can step away when needed to handle city business. He referred to all the grant money he brought into the city, primarily to support public safety, including the beach patrol. He said if reelected he would work to get the police department accredited and hire more police officers.

Rocco DiSilvestro was a career Wildwood police officer and after retiring worked for the county police academy and the fire marshal’s office. He is a lifelong Wildwood resident and said he has seen the highs and lows of the city. He said there are good and bad points to development, and he would work to eliminate the bad, such as allowing development where people end up parking on sidewalks. He was critical of tax abatements for new construction, and he would make the safety of residents and visitors his number one commitment.

Troiano, who said his family has been in Wildwood for 105 years and four generations, graduated from Wildwood High School. Besides being a business owner, he has been a volunteer firefighter for 50 years and has about 19 years of experience as commissioner and mayor. He said outsiders still look at Wildwood as an “ugly stepchild,” and he has worked to bring it on par with other shore communities. He would like to continue road improvements and boardwalk reconstruction, and complete the back bay project.

Swetsky spoke about the town having a black eye, an apparent reference to legal matters facing current and former elected officials. He described Wildwood as “stagnant” and said he would work to improve the quality of life for all residents, whom he would like to include in making “level-headed decisions.” Swetsky wants to improve roads, improve Pacific Avenue and clean up the west side of the city. He said it was time to rid Wildwood of corrupt politics and handshake deals.

Edward “Chip” Harshaw referred to his career as an educator but soon switched to speaking about problems that need to be addressed in Wildwood, including the eventual need for a new water source, particularly with all the development in the city. He said the development is taxing the water and power supply on the island. Harshaw said other candidates would talk about reducing taxes, but that the only reduction in history took place when he and Gary DeMarzo were commissioners. He said tax abatements given to developers are unfair to Wildwood property owners.

Byron said those complaining about tax abatements don’t know what they are. He listed many accomplishments in Wildwood, including getting a dog park, beach boxes and an increase in revenue from ice cream sales. Byron said construction permits were at an all-time high. He said he was told there would never be residences where the landfill is, but now the city is close to getting them. He said Wildwood never had respect, but feels it now does, especially with the new construction, rehabilitation and cleanup of properties.

DeMarzo pointed to his background in municipal government, saying someone cannot do a job simply because he is a nice guy. He said running government is not a “ball toss” but in fact affects people’s livelihoods. He said elected officials have to know how municipal government operates or they could get into trouble for three to five years, an apparent reference to the indicted candidates. DeMarzo said that as the Upper Township administrator and in other dealings he works with municipal governments around the state. He referred to the need for affordable housing and challenged any of the candidates or commissioners to tell him what the city’s obligation is.

Christopher Hines is a lifelong resident who said he wished to become not just the first Black commission member, but the first African American mayor of Wildwood. He spoke about working various jobs to make a living, including being an educator, and highlighted his involvement in the community. Hines said the short-term rental market is eliminating affordable housing in Wildwood and wants to see year-round housing, which he said would lead to year-round investment in the community, which would increase jobs and, by extension, increase tax revenue for the city. He gave out his phone number, saying he was “here to serve the community,” and gave credit to God, his parents, family and friends for his upbringing in Wildwood.

Fitzsimons spoke about the opportunity she had to grow up three blocks from the beach and boardwalk after her parents moved to Wildwood. She talked about her love for the city but also the need to be able to make hard decisions when they are presented. She said the board of commissioners has to make decisions for the long term, not “short-term, Hail Mary” plans. Fitzsimons said the back bay area needed to be fixed for 50 years, and it was finally being done during her term. She said the boardwalk was also being neglected until she was elected to office. She talked about transforming the city’s “wish list” into a “need-to-do list,” which included preserving the boardwalk. Fitzsimons highlighted other redevelopment, including Pacific Avenue and the Byrne Community Center.

Timothy Blute has been a resident of Wildwood for 15 years and worked for the city for seven years. He said he worked under Troiano’s Clean and Lean campaign to clean up Wildwood and saw improvements being made. He said the city cannot afford to cut deals with special interests, and sees the back bay development as a “political football.” Blute echoed earlier concerns about the water supply, saying the city is running out of water. He also echoed earlier concerns over tax abatements given to developers, which he said was 30% for seven years. He called for more attention to public safety, particularly on the boardwalk. He urged voters to elect the “one sensible person” among the candidates.

George Schwab, running with Arroyo and Jeanne Kilian, grew up in Kensington and graduated from the former North Catholic High School in Philadelphia. He developed his own food distribution business before moving to Wildwood permanently in 2015. He said Wildwood government needs to be fiscally responsible and needs a new team of leaders. He said he and his team would be diligent stewards of tax dollars yet prioritize essential services, as well as attract new businesses. He said this requires new people, with new skills, who have a renewed commitment to the residents.

Like Schwab, Kilian is from Kensington and is a graduate of Little Flower High School. She had a career in tech design and executive leadership. Her husband is a career educator. She served on the board of education and as secretary of the planning and zoning boards. She said the beauty of Wildwood that drew her here is being threatened by overdevelopment. She also feels the safety of children is being threatened, physically and morally. Kilian said her team’s campaign is being funded only by residents of Wildwood, to whom she would be responsible, saying she would look out for the best interests of the taxpayers and resist special interests.

Contact the author, Christopher South, at csouth@cmcherald.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.

Reporter

Christopher South is a reporter for the Cape May County Herald.

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