WILDWOOD – The voters of Wildwood are getting the choice of something old, something new and more, with a field of 14 candidates for the three city commissioner seats.
The candidates for the four-year terms include the current board of commissioners and former Mayor Pete Byron, who resigned Sept. 21. Byron is running with Christopher Hines, a lifelong resident who works as a paraprofessional at Glenwood Elementary School.
Commissioner Steve Mikulski is a business owner who described himself as the only full-time commissioner. He has as a running mate former commissioner and Mayor Ernie Troiano Jr., who is also a lifelong resident and business owner.
Krista Fitzsimons is acting mayor, formerly the deputy mayor, and was the highest vote-getter in the 2020 election. She is the director of the Cape May County campus of Atlantic Cape Community College. Joining Fitzsimons are Wildwood School Board President R. Todd Kieninger, who has his own engineering company and owns a bed and breakfast, and Planning Board Vice-Chair Phil Swetsky, who owns CPS Marine and Mobile Shrink Wrap Service.
Former Wildwood police officer and commissioner Gary DeMarzo is running with Edward Harshaw, another former commissioner, and Rocco Di Silvestro. DeMarzo is also a former Wildwood mayor. He currently serves as the Upper Township administrator. Harshaw is a retired educator. Di Silvestro is a retired Wildwood deputy police chief.
A third slate of candidates consists of George Schwab, who owns his own food distribution business, Edward Tito Arroyo and Jeanne L. Kilian, running as “Residents for Wildwood.”
Timothy J. Blute is running as a lone candidate under the slogan “A Better Wildwood.”
Mikulski said his term as commissioner brought him a lot of experience. Covid taught him the importance of fast, decisive action and understanding that Wildwood has a tourist economy, but that the city first belongs to the people who live there. He said he learned to make decisions with the larger community in mind and as a commissioner demonstrated a go-to personality, conforming to the needs of the constituent, as opposed to working 9 to 4:30, Monday through Friday.
Mikulski highlighted his accomplishments as commissioner, saying he had oversight of four critical areas of Public Safety – police, fire, beach patrol and the Wildwood Municipal Court. Under his oversight, parking revenue increased from $775,000 to over $1.3 million through ParkMobile. He takes credit for nearly $650,000 in grants coming into Public Safety.
He said he supervised the public information officer, approved redevelopment projects, including flood mitigation, Pacific Avenue, the Boardwalk and back bay, and assisted in securing grants from the Open Space program and the Neighborhood Preservation Project.
For the future, Mikulski would like to see a number of changes in Public Safety, including accreditation of the police department, insurance savings and decreased litigation; police contracts that are more aligned with other municipalities; more staffing for police and fire departments; and replacing aging vehicles. He wants to continue with the next phases of state Department of Environmental Protection storm sewer improvements and with beautification grants, and will continue “opposing the hiring of unqualified friends/relatives.”
He believes that he brings experience, fiscal responsibility and a determined and energetic outlook, and that he is responsive to constituents. Mikulski said as an owner of a year-round business he has a strong stake in the Wildwood community as a local.
Ernie Troiano Jr. said the slogan “Putting Wildwood First” means the object of any commissioner or council person should be to serve the public, be responsive to their needs, and do your best for the community.
Troiano said he has many times put the needs of the city ahead of his own family. He has spent 50 years as a firefighter, been the fire company treasurer since 1980, treasurer of the firefighters relief association, and spent 11 years as the school board president or vice-president, 14 years as chair of the Planning and Zoning Board, and 18½ years in city government.
He said he decided to run for commissioner despite objections of family members, telling them they did not understand because they were still young. He said he has a sense of what he wants to complete as a commissioner to help move the city forward. He said the development of the back bay is not completed, and the oceanfront has yet to see the development of hotels and condotels that will add to the ratables base.
Troiano said street improvements are a priority, and while everyone talks about cutting taxes, he said he wants to stabilize taxes and increase the efficiency of government. Combined with the increased ratables, he said, the city might see a windfall.
He said he is a big proponent of consolidating services, and said his ideal situation would be a one-island government, while admitting he would not see that happen in his lifetime. At the same time, he feels there is enough activity on the island that there could be an island-wide 911 dispatch, rather than relying on the county.
Troiano said a lot of the projects being talked about as improvements were already started under his administration, including all the park renovations. He said the outfall pipe improvements and Boardwalk restoration work started during his tenure in office. He supports the capping and development of the former landfill but feels it would better serve the community as a sports field rather than passive park.
Troiano said he would represent the town passionately and energetically, saying he is not shy about speaking out and tackling problems in difficult times. He said he is not afraid to be a cheerleader for Wildwood and for the entire Five Mile Island, adding, “I will fight for what is good for Wildwood.”
Kieninger said “Moving Wildwood Forward” is building off a lot of the positive momentum generated over the past four years with projects such as the city use of solar panels, microturbine installation and the new energy-efficient chiller at city hall; the continuation of the Boardwalk replacement; some large development projects, and progress on the back bay (former landfill).
Kieninger said that since 1995, when he moved to Wildwood, the Boardwalk, the city’s primary wealth generator for businesses, has grown visually unappealing, hazardous and structurally unsound. He said continued progress on the Boardwalk project is vital. The city continues to pay fines issued by the DEP on the former landfill site, and Wildwood now has plans to turn something that drains city resources into a revenue generator and open space park.
He said he wants to help make sure this progress continues, and he believes the current administration was doing a “great job.” He said he would not be running if he had not been asked to do so by Fitzsimons, and would have supported the current team if not for the legal questions, referring to Byron and Mikulski, who are each facing a 12-count indictment related to the use of state health care benefits, as is Troiano. Kieninger said he wants to continue to support smart investment that reduces long-term costs and increases revenue.
The desire for fiscal conservancy is one reason Kieninger is running. He wants to help fix the problems that drain city resources. At the same time, he said, the city’s most valuable resources – the beach and Boardwalk – are not generating valuable ratables.
He said the Convention Center, which is over 25 years old, still does not have a host hotel to attract the best conventions. While Kieninger supports redeveloping the Boardwalk blocks to more valuable properties, he believes a vital component of any redevelopment plan has to be a parking solution. At the same time, he is in favor of preserving some of the remaining historic structures and seeing them restored, preserving neighborhoods with front porches facing the street versus garage doors.
Kieninger would like to see the redevelopment continue as a mix of businesses and residential units along Pacific Avenue, saying it has felt more alive this summer than when he moved to Wildwood. He said the recent Pacific Avenue redevelopment plan was crucial in getting the positive momentum started.
Fitzsimons said “Moving Wildwood Forward” means the team will continue to push Wildwood forward and push the city to reach its full potential. She said there are a lot of good projects in the works and the team has the “foresight, leadership and experience to be able to keep the momentum going.”
Fitzsimons, the acting mayor at the moment, said she should be reelected because she is deeply rooted in the community and provides consistent leadership. She served for many years on the Cape Trinity Catholic and Wildwood Public School boards, the Planning and Zoning Board, the United Way board, Main Street Wildwood, Greater Wildwood Kiwanis and many more organizations.
She said she knows the rich diversity of Wildwood. She said her professional experience and upbringing have taught her how to be a good fiscal steward of other people’s – the taxpayers’ – money. She said she would continue to be “laser-focused” on the Boardwalk redevelopment, the Downtown Pacific Avenue initiative, cleaning up and redeveloping the back bay (landfill) and finishing the Byrne Community Center project, and “keep a watchful eye on striking a healthy balance between development and preservation.”
Fitzsimons said she brings long-term thinking, strategic planning and the foresight to plan, prepare and save for future projects. Her accomplishments, she said, have never come without considering how each decision affects all residents long term.
Besides those projects already mentioned, Fitzsimons included the Arts in the Parks summer program and many more as part of her resume. She said her hope is that she will be given the opportunity to continue working for the future of Wildwood, saying, “I bring to the table a genuine love for Wildwood with honest and consistent leadership. Wildwood needs it and Wildwood deserves it.”
Swetsky is concerned about moving Wildwood toward “progress and advancement.” He said Wildwood for too long has had a black eye when compared to other towns due to its politicians and policies. He wants to see Wildwood catch up to “premier destinations.”
Swetsky said Wildwood has essentially been stagnant for the last 30 years due to policy and questionable decisions. Now at a turning point where voters can decide which direction they want Wildwood to go, he believes this is a time when the city can move forward with “something fresh.” He said he is referring to “young blood, a fresh set of eyes, and outside-the-box thinking.” He said he sees a lot of potential in the local citizens and is ready to work alongside them to make the improvement he is calling for.
Swetsky said one of the main goals of his team, which includes Fitzsimons and Kieninger, is to lower property taxes. He said that is an expressed goal of a lot of candidates, but with the rising cost of goods and services due to inflation that is sometimes difficult to accomplish.
He said Wildwood is fortunate and unique in that it has a fair amount of vacant land that can be developed, which will bring more property tax revenue into the city. He said there are a lot of developable areas on Pacific Avenue, Park Boulevard, and on the west side of the island that are either “closed, abandoned, or in disrepair.” He is calling for responsible residential and commercial development that helps increase ratables to stabilize or even lower the tax rate.
Swetsky would also like to see stronger code enforcement, saying that “undesirable properties and buildings have been an eyesore” for far too long to so many residents. He said property owners need to take responsibility for their properties if Wildwood is going to be a premier destination, and it has to start with stronger enforcement of Wildwood’s codes and ordinances.
He also said the city has to back its police and first responders, with more manpower and the tools to make Wildwood a safe place for locals and visitors alike. He said the “defund the police” movement put a lot of towns in the difficult position of trying to find good police officers. Swetsky said he believes Wildwood needs to do everything possible to find the best police officers and give them the support they need to do their job correctly and effectively.
DeMarzo likened public service to the pastorate or the priesthood, saying that it’s a calling that requires a person who wants to put others above themselves. This is why, he said, his team’s slogan is “Doing the Peoples Business.” He said the three team members have “decades of self-sacrificing public service.”
DeMarzo said the team pledges to continue to work for the people – the people they served, taught and protected in their chosen professions. He said the team’s plans for Wildwood are simple, obtainable and proven to be successful and would be implemented from the day they are elected. He said the team has an energy and sense of compassion that will add to the strength of the community, saying, “Together we will lead the city for the greater good.”
He said the team has a set of principles that include transparency, community and family values, safety, opportunity, cooperation and building relationships and commerce. He said their platform is based on community input and includes integrity in office, restoring honor to the city and enhancing public safety, adding: “A ‘community’ is safe, secure and welcoming.”
DeMarzo promotes the development of the bike path, Boardwalk and tourism, and community activities and marketing Wildwood with the idea of smart growth and development. He said he believes in “pumps, dumps and speed bumps,” saying he would work to dry up Wildwood’s streets, cap and develop the former landfill and slow down dangerous traffic.
Harshaw is a retired educator who served on the Board of Commissioners with DeMarzo until the recall of 2009. Harshaw said he lived in Wildwood about 99% of his life and that one of his pet peeves is the unbridled building going on without regard for the water supply. Harshaw said there is “only a finite supply of water,” and the city needs to look to the future in order to supply drinking water to its residents.
He said Wildwood has allowed new construction to go on with no regard to the water situation. He promotes looking into a water desalination plant as was created in Cape May. He said U.S. naval vessels have their own desalination systems, and he believes it’s time to consider one for Wildwood as well.
Harshaw said high taxes have always been a problem in Wildwood and would be one of his biggest concerns as a commissioner. He questions why so much building has gone on with no positive effect on the tax rate. He said with all the building taxes should be decreasing; he said there has been no tax decrease since he was in office in 2006.
He said the city also needs to look at the level of wages being paid to some city employees, saying there are some city employees who earn excessive salaries and are not Wildwood residents. Harshaw quoted former Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, who said, “If our city is good enough for you to work in, it’s good enough for you to live in.”
Harshaw said his biggest goals would include cutting taxes and addressing overdevelopment, which places a burden not only on the water supply system but also the electrical supply system. He said if developers remove two single-family houses and put up eight condos they will use more water and more electricity. He said he sees the need for workforce housing and was sorry to see a J-1 housing project turn into a hotel. He said it is going to take a big investment to ensure there is housing for seasonal workers.
Di Silvestro is a retired deputy chief of police who worked for the Wildwood Police Department for 30 years, retiring in 2000. He spent the next 15 years as an instructor with the Cape May County Police Academy, retiring from there three years ago. He is running with DeMarzo and Harshaw on the “Moving Wildwood Forward” ticket, which he said has a lot to do with accountability. Di Silvestro said in talking with a lot of residents, the residents are calling for accountability and oversight of city government.
Di Silvestro is now fully retired, and with his wife passing in April, he said he can devote all his time to the office of commissioner. He said this is something he is longing to do in the city where he was born, raised, worked his career and retired. He said his children are the fourth generation in his family to see Wildwood experiencing ups and downs – never reaching its full potential.
He said the previous administrations have pushed tax abatements at the expense of ratables, placing the burden on the average property owner. At the same time, he said, the Planning and Zoning Board gives variances that he said are to the detriment of the city, eliminating parking and encouraging owners to block sidewalks due to inadequate parking. He said he has experienced the problem of having to walk in the street because of blocked sidewalks. He said these are the kinds of things that give Wildwood a bad rap.
Di Silvestro, who was second in command at the Wildwood Police Department, worked with budgets and using tax dollars efficiently. He said he attended the FBI Academy, which teaches administration and finances, and he believes he has the experience and training to be a city commissioner. He said he would use his administrative experience to ensure there is oversight of city departments.
He said while the city has done a good job so far with Pacific Avenue and the city entrance on Wildwood Boulevard, there has also been waste, referring to a pump that is supposed to help control flooding but is simply rusting away. He said he wants to ensure that city departments cooperate with each other and serve the public with integrity and respect.
Di Silvestro believes the current police chief is doing a good job but there is more to do to keep visitors and business owners safe. He said the important of public safety cannot be underestimated in a tourist town.
Blute was a candidate for Wildwood commissioner in 2019, before the current administration was elected. He has never held public office, but is a retired Teamsters Local 456 member. He worked for Wildwood as a code enforcer for seven years before he resigned, he said, because he did not agree with policy changes made by the new administration.
Blute said he is “running for change,” saying the recently resigned mayor is a “federally convicted criminal who is also facing state fraud charges,” and the commissioner of public safety (Mikulski) is also facing state fraud charges. He feels the commissioner of revenue and finance (Fitzsimons) has turned a blind eye to their activities.
He said that the fact that the three commissioners, although they have parted ways, have decided to run again is a disgrace to the residents, homeowners and taxpayers of the city, and he believes change is greatly needed.
Blute said the abundance of new construction in the city has not yielded the promised ratables and lower taxes. He said that as a taxpayer he is appalled by the exorbitant contract negotiated for trash pickup, saying it has only turned the streets into a dump because no one monitors the pickups.
He called the Boardwalk “a disgrace, totally unruly.” He advocates for the strict enforcement of city codes to control bikes, electric bikes, dogs, drinking and smoking – both cigarettes and cannabis – on the Boardwalk.
Blute said he would engage business owners, homeowners and residents to voice opinions on what they feel is needed to secure the quality of life and safety of all visitors and residents, adding that they should have a say in decisions being made. He is also in favor of placing a cap on municipal spending.
He said the city “desperately needs people who do not have an agenda but truly care about the city in which they live.” He said he would have respect for the city employees, listen to their complaints and work with them to rectify any problems. He said he would go the extra mile to get the job done.
Byron is running under the slogan “My Jobs Not Done Yet.” Byron said that for the past 12 years he has been contributing to the Wildwood community in a multitude of ways. He said this campaign is the next step in what he has already accomplished as commissioner and mayor.
Byron said his promise is that his job doesn’t stop at being elected to office. He said he assisted with securing $1.6 million to renovate Maxwell Field and the Byrne Community Center. He said that while serving on the Tourism Development Commission he helped approve funding for Arts in the Park, the Hispanic Concert at Fox Park and the beach, and helped approve the statues seen around the community, as well as many more successful events.
Byron said that continuing to serve the community, creating more business ventures and staying highly engaged with the people is his top priority.
Hines said he is a lifelong resident who cares deeply about his community and the people who live there. He said it is his goal to continue the progress of Wildwood, which he called a diverse community that deserves a leader who resembles the many people who represent the community.
He said he strongly believes in inclusion and giving locals a voice to be heard. He said as a commissioner he would remain engaged with the community, public schools and events. He said one way he would do this is to create a small team of youth to act as junior commissioners to represent and advocate for the needs of the youth and serve as a liaison between the governing body and Wildwood High School.
Hines would build a bond with the chamber of commerce and assist with creating more opportunities for entrepreneurs to make Wildwood their home. He would advocate for more affordable housing to help bring more year-round families back to Wildwood.
Hines is an Army veteran who said he maintains the values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage instilled in him from age 18. He served two tours in Germany and Iraq before returning to Wildwood with a desire to continue to serve his community.
He works as a special education paraprofessional at Glenwood Elementary, he coaches football for the Junior Warriors, he is the founder/president of the nonprofit Top Kids Athletics, and he runs the Jersey Rockets AAU Basketball Team.
Hines has his own DJ business and serves as minister of music at Angel Visit Baptist Church. He served on the Tourism Development Commission, Planning and Zoning Board and Recreation Advisory Board for the past three years. He said when elected he would work hard to earn the respect and trust of the people in the community.
Hines said he has three major goals as commissioner – increase economic growth, foster community engagement and boost education and youth programs. He said the people of Wildwood and its students deserve to see representatives who look like them, talk like them and can relate to them, and the citizens need and deserve a commissioner who is accessible to them.
Schwab, Arroyo, Kilian
Grace Garofolo Schwab, the campaign manager for George Schwab, Arroyo and Kilian, spoke for the entire team. She said their campaign slogan, “Residents for Wildwood,” means they are residents of Wildwood who are looking to separate themselves from the rest of the candidates and to say they are not beholden to any special interest group. She said they “are 100% committed to restoring the integrity and positive perception of Wildwood.”
The “Residents for Wildwood” believe they are the team that cares about the city, and that the current commissioners are out of touch with the role and duties of a public servant. They say they are committed to making necessary changes and putting residents first.
One of the main reasons Schwab, Arroyo and Kilian decided to run is public safety, especially during the peak season, due to disorderly youth, the H2oi rally and recent stabbings. They say they are committed to improving public safety to ensure Wildwood residents feel safe.
Another major issue for the team is the overdevelopment and overcrowding of Wildwood. They feel the Planning and Zoning Board is “not considering the detrimental effects of allowing builders to erect multi-unit structures on undersized lots in residential neighborhoods.” This, they say, is creating overcrowding and parking issues for residents. The increased ratables, they said, have not translated into tax decreases, and they are seeing families being forced out of Wildwood.
The team promises a commitment to help Wildwood residents thrive, while bringing “honesty, integrity, hard work and determination to the city we love.”
Contact the author, Christopher South, at email@example.com or 609-886-8600, ext. 128.