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Freeholder Candidates Face Off in Debate

Freeholder Director Gerald Thornton.

By Bill Barlow

COURT HOUSE – County spending, infrastructure, and nepotism were in focus during the Oct. 29 debate among candidates for two seats on the Cape May County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
Each of those issues has also been part of the campaign of the two Democrats in the race, but the event also highlighted some agreement between the parties.
The Democrats praised the efforts already undertaken to combat opioid abuse, which all four candidates described as a crisis. They also supported Sheriff Robert Nolan’s decision to renew an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a move heavily criticized by the progressive wing of their party.
The Republican incumbents cited progress on economic issues and county projects, while highlighting what they described as an exceptionally low county tax rate.
GOP incumbents E. Marie Hayes and Gerald Thornton are seeking a return to the board, which is currently entirely Republican. Challengers Joyce Gould and Elizabeth Casey describe that uniformity as a problem, arguing that it is time for other voices in county government.
Supporters and residents crowded the Historic Courthouse building on Main Street, which has served as home to candidates’ debates for decades. The event was moderated by the League of Women Voters of Cape May County.
During the campaign, the Democratic nominees have cited arguments within the freeholder board, including a divided vote to censure Hayes, which Thornton supported. She was accused of violating the county’s conflict of interest policies and retaliation against a county employee.
Thornton and Hayes have stated there is no animosity within the Republican ticket, and none was perceptible at the debate stage. For the most part, the debate seemed friendly all around, with Gould and Thornton using each other’s first names and joking several times.
Thornton expressed far more anger at Trenton, accusing the state government of ignoring Cape May County’s needs and acting unfairly. In answer to a question on consolidation of local school districts, Thornton said the state income tax was originally enacted to fund education.
“Since that time, they’ve taken that money and just robbed us,” he said. “They robbed the school districts. They robbed the teachers, and I can tell you, when they talk about the pension fund? They did the same damned thing with the pension fund.”
He said he was not talking about political parties, saying “they’re all guilty up there,” stating that the state has “swindled” residents and placed the burden on taxpayers.
Thornton, 78, of Court House, is the freeholder director, and the longest-serving member of the board, with 38 years on the board.
Hayes, 64, of Ocean City, is seeking her third full term on the board, after being appointed to fill the unexpired seat of Susan Sheppard when she ran for county surrogate. Hayes spent her career in law enforcement, retiring after 29 years with the county Prosecutor’s Office.
Casey, 54, is an attorney who lives in Upper Township. Gould, 76, has served for years as a Wildwood Crest commissioner and is a former mayor of that town. She previously ran for freeholder as a Democrat in 1990. Gould joined the Democratic ticket in August after Attorney Steve Barry stepped down as the nominee.
In the debate, which lasted close to an hour and a half, the Democrats criticized county spending and called for action on replacing the bridges along Ocean Drive, which engineers have stated are in bad shape. County officials have said the bridges need federal money to be replaced. The Democrats said the bridges need immediate action.
“This is my favorite topic,” said Gould. “Middle Thorofare Bridge, the one that goes from Wildwood to Cape May, as you go over it, it will look like the iron on this bridge has been riddled with bullets. It’s the chewing up of the metal. People tell me, if you think it’s bad on top, you ought to go underneath and take a look.”
She said she told Thornton years ago to just get it done, with an obscenity for emphasis.
“I don’t want to be on an island where the George Redding Bridge is closed because it’s flooded and I can’t get out through Cape May because the bridge isn’t working,” she said, adding that fire trucks are too heavy to use the existing bridge. “This is a disgrace. We need a new bridge.”
Casey said the county should go to bond for as much money as possible and then seek the balance from state and federal sources.
According to Hayes, the county has worked for years to address the issue.
“We are a county surrounded by water. We are a county surrounded by bridges. One bridge can cost up to $220 million to be replaced. Is that something that we want to put on the taxpayers of Cape May County? No,” she said. Instead, she said, the county is working on studies and architectural plans so projects will be ready when state and federal money becomes available.
Gould pointed out that the Ocean City-Longport Bridge had been replaced, suggesting the southern end of the county is ignored.
“Yes, we replaced the bridge in Ocean City,” Thornton said, but that only cost the county between $3.5 million and $4 million “because $67 million came from the feds and the State of New Jersey. That’s the point I’m trying to make. Now, Joyce Gould’s bridge that we’re talking about.”
Gould interrupted him to ask if she could then keep the tolls. He joked that a new bridge could be named for her, drawing a laugh from the crowd.
“It’s going to cost like $230 million. It’s a significant difference,” he said. Thornton added that he and Freeholder Vice-Director Leonard Desiderio are working with the South Jersey Transportation Planning Organization to look for federal and state funding for the project.
“That’s why we’re putting money aside in every budget to look at these bridges,” he said. To replace all the toll bridges would cost an estimated $500 million to $600 million. “It’s a problem that was dumped on us because the bridges are 80 years old. We’re trying to address it.”
He added that the bridges are inspected each year and are safe to use.
Casey added that Thornton was originally elected to the freeholder board in the 1970s, suggesting that he has been involved during the deterioration.
The Democrats suggest county spending is too high, and increases too regularly, buoyed by the steady increase in tax ratables around the county. Thornton countered that the county must adhere to a state cap of 2%.
 The incumbents touted their efforts in economic development, with Hayes stating that efforts to build a drone industry in the county will draw high-paying jobs.
Thornton also discussed a county project at the site of the former Kmart in Rio Grande, to include social services and a new clinic for veterans to be operated by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Casey and Gould said the county should develop a policy on nepotism, while Thornton stated the existing policies on conflicts of interest were sufficient. He said he would not want a qualified candidate to be passed up just because they were related to someone already in county government, and said there is also a policy against one relative directly supervising another. Thornton added that someone with a relative in county government may do a better job to avoid embarrassing their family.
The Democrats did not take on a high-profile fight over immigration and the county Sheriff’s Office.
Cape May County has filed suit against state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal over an agreement to allow immigration enforcement in the county jail. Under the Immigrant Trust Directive, the state has limited the use of 287(g) agreements with ICE.
Thornton said he supported the agreement since 2012, when it was brought forward by then-Sheriff Gary Schaffer.
“I said ‘Gary, we’re not going to be a sanctuary county.’ He said ‘I agree,’” Thornton said. “We all agree that to allow illegal aliens to commit a crime and then go to the county jail and then we’re going to release them out into the community. It’s outrageous.”
Hayes said she would take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court. She said as a former police officer, she took an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution.
“That’s exactly what Sheriff Nolan is doing, and I support him 1,000%,” she said.
The Democrats also supported Nolan.
“I do not oppose Sheriff Nolan’s use of the ICE training for his officers,” Casey said, citing the program’s use in the county jail. “Sheriff Nolan is not going into our immigrant communities. Sheriff Nolan is not going into businesses and rounding people up. I do not oppose the way ICE is being implemented at the county level.”
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmcherald.com.

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