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Wildwood Cracks Down on ‘Exhibition Driving’

Wildwood Commissioners meeting Oct. 12 to discuss the ordinance.

By Christopher South

WILDWOOD – The Wildwood Board of Commissioners has introduced its first ordinance aimed at putting the brakes on bad behavior by participants in unsanctioned car rallies. The goal is to stop a repeat of the H2oi rally that caused the death of two people and injured another in Wildwood, Sept. 24. 
The commissioners introduced Ordinance 1242-22, Oct. 12, which would call for a fine of up to $2,000 and up to 90 days imprisonment for “exhibition driving.” The ordinance defines exhibition driving as excessive, abrupt acceleration or deceleration, skidding, squealing, burning or smoking the tires, swerving or swaying the car from side to side while skidding, the engine producing unreasonably loud, raucous or disturbing sounds, grinding of gears or backfiring of the engine, causing any of the wheels to leave the ground or participating in a race or speed contest. 
The ordinance also prohibits allowing passengers to ride on the hood, roof, or other areas not meant for passengers. 
The actual amount of the fine and/or imprisonment would be determined by the municipal judge. 
Ordinance 1242-22 is the first of what will be a series of legislation to be introduced at the local and state levels aimed at curtailing the behaviors outlined in the ordinance. 
Mayor Pete Byron told the Herald that he met with State Sen. Michael Testa and Cape May County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland Oct. 10, and they discussed what needs to be done legislatively to stop what turned out to be deadly behavior. Testa confirmed that the trio met, adding that the legislation he wants to enact will be broader than prohibiting exhibition driving. 
“I can tell you that it does not just specifically pertain to H2oi events, which was the car show that turned to drag racing that ended up taking two lives,” Testa said. 
Testa said in February the 1st District legislative team, which includes him and Assemblymen Erik Sim0nsen and Antwan McClellan, met with mayors of seashore towns because of the public use of marijuana on boardwalks. 
Testa said there have been incidents in Brick, Wayne, Ortley Beach and Point Pleasant Beach. He said in June there was a flash mob that descended on Long Branch. Over 1,000 people showed up in Long Branch over a Jun 2021 weekend for a pop-up party announced on social media, CBS News reported. The event resulted in four arrests. NJ Advance Media reported that a similar event in May drew 5,000 people and 16 arrests were made. 
As a result, his colleagues, state Sens. Bob Singer (R-30) and Joseph Pennacchio (R-26) introduced a bill to expand the definition of a riot so that events such as flash mobs or pop-up car rallies could be better handled by law enforcement. Testa was a co-sponsor of the bill. 
“The bill wasn’t even introduced in committee,” he said. “These lives (in Wildwood) were lost needlessly. Police departments should be given greater power to make arrests.”
Gerald T. White, 37, of Pittsburgh was arrested shortly after the accident that took two lives. On Sept. 27, the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office upgraded the charges against White to two counts of first-degree aggravated manslaughter. They also added two counts of second-degree aggravated assault and fleeing the police. 
Eryk R. Wnek, 22, of Linden, was charged with aggravated assault and assault by auto after crashing into a golf cart with two adult and four juvenile occupants. The driver was seriously injured and transported to the trauma unit at the AtlantiCare Medical Center in Atlantic City. The other passengers were treated for minor injuries at the scene. 
Zion Diaz, 18, of Hammonton was arrested Oct. 11 and charged with the fourth-degree crime of riot for allegedly encouraging others to participate in exhibition driving. Police said he also tried to prevent police vehicles from responding to emergency calls. 
Joshua Bocchino, 19, of Long Branch was arrested Oct. 13 and charged with third-degree aggravated assault and resisting arrest.
The county prosecutor’s office continues to investigate the matter to determine if others will be charged. 
Testa questioned the number of officers for the Wildwood Police Department, saying Wildwood needed police from outside the community. He called it a joint effort, but a reaction.
“Quite frankly we knew something was going to happen due to the state’s soft-on-crime policies,” he said.
At the Oct. 12 commissioners meeting, a resident raised the question of whether the town was prepared for the rally and the resulting mayhem. City Manager Steve O’Connor responded to the public comment saying it is unfair to characterize the town’s response to H2oi as “unprepared.” O’Connor said the prosecutor’ s office is performing an investigation, of which a portion will be made public. 
“We’ve never had an incident like this,” O’Connor said. “The prosecutor’s office will evaluate all the departments, they will evaluate their reputation, they will evaluate their response time and they will evaluate the planning; and a lot of that report will be public.”
O’Connor said the city prepared as it would for major events, saying Wildwood has a reputation for being very well prepared for planned, sanctioned events. He referred to the Country Music Festival, calling planning for that event “impeccable.” He warned against taking a militaristic approach to any event saying that would change the character of a tourist community. 
In addition, O’Connor said that it took Ocean City, Maryland about six years to deal with the H2oi rally problem. He said Wildwood is fortunate to have access to how Ocean City reacted to the problem, and it can mirror Ocean City’s response, but in less time. 
O’Connor talked about establishing agreements with businesses with private parking lots that would allow the city to tow vehicles. This would require reaching out to local towing companies and having them on board as well. He said if someone racks up $5,000 or $6,000 in fines and towing charges they might think twice about coming back to Wildwood. 
O’Connor said he has talked to the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission about doing roadside inspections to identify vehicles that do not meet standards for driving on the roadways.  
O’Connor said all of this must be accomplished without violation of people’s civil rights.  
Email csouth@cmcherald.com with tips.

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