HOWELL – A tearful council meeting full of thanks and praise marked the end of terms for two local officials.
Mayor William Gotto and Councilman Edward Guz, who did not to seek re-election, spent a portion of the last meeting of the year – and of their terms – reflecting on their service.
“It’s a bittersweet moment for me,” Guz said. “One of the definitions of courage is grace under pressure, and every time I come to this council meeting, both the township staff and council people show tremendous grace in some of the difficult challenges we face.”
Gotto, who has said he never considered himself a long-term politician, served Howell Township as fire commissioner, councilmember and deputy mayor prior to being elected mayor in 2013.
Although Guz served only one term as councilmember, he has spent his entire adult life in governmental service, volunteering his time as a hearing officer and on Howell’s zoning and finance committees since he retired from the state 10 years ago.
The mayor originally ran on a “Rebranding of Howell” campaign, vowing to stabilize taxes, keep municipal spending low and restructure municipal operations. Speaking at a Howell Township reorganization meeting in 2013, Gotto said the main reason he ran for council was to make Howell an affordable place for his daughter, so she could experience the same joy of buying a home and raising a family that he and his wife Debbie did when they moved to the town back in 1996.
Mayor Gotto was brought to tears at the December 12 council meeting while looking back on his past four years as mayor. Many thanks were given to the current governing body, whom he credited as the backbone of the town’s accomplishments, as well as to his wife and daughter for their support.
While he admits never having any aspirations to be mayor, Gotto explained the reason he took on the challenge, saying, “If you have a son or a daughter and you’re trying to teach that lesson of how valuable it is to give back to the community, that’s the reason I did it, because I want to leave a lasting impression on my daughter. I’m proud of my daughter every day.”
Members of the community and sitting Councilmembers also spoke to Gotto’s time as mayor, highlighting his dedication and commitment to doing the right thing.
“I’ve seen you give yourself up to many, many people in many different ways, said former mayor and Councilman Robert Walsh. “To say you’re an asset, one of the pillars of Howell Township, would be an understatement. It’s been a joy working with you, now and then it’s been a little bit of a rough road, but it’d be a rough road with anybody.”
Some of those challenges include the controversial West Farms affordable housing project, which sparked a flurry of debate and anti-Semitic comments on social media last month after it was alleged that the property owner had ties to the Rabbinical Seminary of America. In response, the mayor penned an open letter to Howell residents expressing his disgust.
Gotto will be succeeded by Dr. Theresa Berger, CEO of the non-profit Ocean Health Initiatives and the first Democrat to be voted onto council in over six years.
In a mayoral campaign centered largely on the issue of overdevelopment, Berger faced criticism after political ads surfaced claiming that Republican nominees favored “Lakewood-Style” developments that are often home to Orthodox Jewish communities. Berger has since claimed that the phrase only refers to high-density overcrowding and violation of zoning laws. In addition to limiting overdevelopment, Berger’s priorities as mayor include stabilizing taxes and bringing back Howell’s recreation program.
Along with the addition of Berger in 2016, Republican Evelyn O’Donnell, who is a member of the Zoning Board of Adjustments, will take the council member seat left open by Guz. Former Mayor Robert Walsh, Deputy Mayor Robert Nicastro and Councilwoman Pauline Smith will continue to serve as council members until their terms expire in 2018.