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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Virus Casts Shadow Over OC Election

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By Bill Barlow

To access the Herald’s local coronavirus/COVID-19 coverage, click here.
OCEAN CITY – Four of the seven seats on City Council are up for election May 12, but the ongoing threat of COVID-19 seems likely to overshadow any election campaign this year.
The city decided that all voting for the spring non-partisan election will be done by mail. Registered voters will receive ballots in the mail and have until May 12 to post their ballots.
Up for election this year are the seats representing the four city wards, making up a narrow majority on the governing body. There is a contested race in only one, the Third Ward, where boardwalk businessman Jody Levchuk has challenged incumbent Councilman Anthony Wilson.
Two incumbents will not see a challenge.
In the 1st ward, Michael DeVlieger is running unopposed, as is Bob Barr in the city’s 4th ward.
A race also seemed likely in the city’s 2nd ward, where the seat was left vacant after Councilman Antwan McClellan resigned before being sworn in as a state assemblyman, in January.
On Feb. 13, City Council members met with potential candidates for the position to fill in until the election. Three members supported Gabriel Staino for the position, but member Keith Hartzel abstained. 
With two members absent and the third ward seat vacant, that meant the measure fell short of the four votes required.
Staino said at the time, he planned to run for the seat this spring and filed petitions with the city clerk’s office March 2. Staff at that office said he did not meet the requirements to run for the seat because he has not yet lived in the ward for a full year. As of the election, he will have lived in Ocean City for 10 months.
In a recent interview, he said he was unaware of the requirement until just before the filing deadline. He withdrew his petitions once informed of the residency rule, leaving a single candidate for the seat, Tomaso Rotondi. Two other men also applied for appointment to the seat but did not file petitions for a place on the ballot.
Staino expressed disappointment that the seat would go unchallenged, stating that if he knew earlier that he did not qualify, he would have encouraged another candidate to step forward. He also expressed concern about holding a mail-in only campaign, calling voting one of the fundamental rights of Americans.
Rotondi did not respond to a request for comment.
In his campaign announcement, Rotondi described himself as a resident of Ocean City for more than 10 years. He is a former Lower Township police officer who later served with the state Department of Corrections. He now specialized in employee health benefits with the Marsh and McLennan Agency. He is also a member of the Ocean City Zoning Board.
In early March, Rotondi said he’d been campaigning door-to-door and visited more than 300 residents in the third ward, a style of personal politics typical of ward races that is no longer feasible this year.
Most candidates knock on doors and shake hundreds of hands while running for local office. It gets the candidate name recognition, but also gives them a chance to hear from constituents who may never come to a City Council meeting or otherwise speak with a city government representative, said DeVlieger.
“This has certainly created a challenge in that regard,” he said.
As with much of the country, Ocean City is close to locked down in response to the coronavirus. Schools and businesses are closed; parks chained up and even the beaches and boardwalk off limits, as officials work to curb the spread of the disease.
DeVlieger said he is using the effort he would otherwise have spent campaigning on the OCNJ CARE project, an organization created after Hurricane Sandy, which has been reactivated and repurposed to respond to the impact of the coronavirus and the economic impact of the shutdown.
“I’ve tried to channel my energies a little differently, out of respect for the kinds of things people are going through right now. I’m trying to network with the people I know to see if they know anybody in need of help,” he said. “I’ve tried to make that the focus of my efforts.”
Typically, turnout is low for the May municipal elections. One exception DeVlieger remembered was when there was a question on the ballot about allowing BYOB in local restaurants. Without a major race at the top of the ticket and uncontested races in most wards, not to mention the distraction of a global pandemic, this year may not be an exception.
It’s possible the ease of voting by mail could mean an increase in participation, DeVlieger said.
Ocean City’s is the only May election in the county this year. Most municipalities with non-partisan forms of government have moved their election days to November. Only Avalon and Sea Isle City also have May elections, and neither has a race this year.
There is an April 21 deadline to register to vote in time to participate in the May election. Forms to register, and other forms to have a ballot mailed to a temporary address, can be found at capemaycountyvotes.com.
Neither Levchuk nor Wilson returned calls requesting comment for this story.
To contact Bill Barlow, email bbarlow@cmchearld.com.

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