JACKSON – 2020 began with great promise and hope despite reports that the coronavirus was heading to the United States.
Just as no one could foresee that the COVID-19 pandemic’s presence would expand far beyond the initial expected two week shut down of businesses and schools, no one could have predicted the many changes and challenges to be faced by the community as a whole.
In the wake of Council President Robert Nixon’s resignation from office in late November of 2019, Vice Council President Barry Calogero assumed the role of leadership. The new council president led the council for the first four months of 2020.
In late February/early March he was recuperating at home from surgery watching the news when he saw a commercial that featured individuals that were all too familiar. Calogero was one of them. The commercial was part of social media and television commercial campaign that claimed Mayor Michael Reina, former Councilman Nixon and he had taken actions within their elected positions against the Orthodox Jewish community in Jackson.
The commercial attacked their character and that of the township noting pending litigation involving development projects rejected by the Planning Board and Zoning Board.
Calogero said in an interview with The Jackson Times that he was stunned by the tactic as were the others named in the campaign and the accusations made and which were largely attributed to the sponsorship of a prominent businessman in Lakewood.
The majority of those who responded to the Facebook page set up by the creator of the campaign, spoke in strong support of the township and its officials dismissing the claims presented in the commercial.
In April, Calogero, citing health reasons and the potential for conflict between his state job and the ongoing tension involved with the position of Council President, he resigned. He said his resignation had “nothing to do” with his call for the National Guard to enforce stay-at-home orders in Ocean County when numerous violations of those orders in Lakewood had been noted in national reports.
Around this time council meetings had adopted a Zoom format due to the growing pandemic and the guidelines limiting public gatherings. While Calogero was honored by his council colleagues and others who had worked with him over the years as a council member and other township boards, it was not until later in the year when he and his wife could attend a public meeting where he received a full public farewell.
Martin Flemming, a well-known resident and member of the Planning Board replaced Nixon on the council and in June, Steve Chisholm joined the all-Republican council to fill Calogero’s vacant spot.
Chisholm heads the Jackson Chamber of Commerce. The gavel of leadership of the council was passed to Alex Sauickie. He and Andrew Kern had begun their second year on the council in January of 2020 having taken office in January of 2019. Kern became the vice council president.
The most senior member of the council, Kenneth Bressi, told The Jackson Times he had fallen out of favor of the Jackson Republican Club. According to Bressi, he was no longer welcome in the local political club and would not be endorsed to run for re-election.
While he could seek out the necessary signatures to run in the non-partisan form of government, Bressi, whose service to Jackson began in July of 1989, chose not to run and to take a break from municipal service. He was presented a plaque, a fond farewell and good wishes during the last council meeting of the year held on December 15.
Running council meetings virtually was not always easy. Municipalities everywhere learned as the pandemic unfolded and as the guidelines imposed by the state changed constantly. One Council meeting in the spring saw Jackson hit by a “Zoom bomb” which featured audio and video from another source which included expletives and racist language.
Council President Sauickie apologized for the incident and that meeting was to be the last held on Zoom as conditions allowed for Jackson to resume live meetings with masks and social distancing guidelines in place during the next session.
As racial tensions exploded in the wake of the death of George Floyd, an African-American who died during an arrest in Minneapolis, protests were held throughout the country. A new organization and movement started in Jackson. Township residents organized the Peaceful Jackson Protest that drew more a thousand people to the Jackson Memorial Park.
The organizers of that protest came to form the Jackson Peace Unit who have coordinated events to support the community. Two Juneteenth observances were also held in the township calling for racial justice and equality.
Like all school districts in Ocean County, New Jersey and the country, Jackson’s Board of Education had the challenge of educating students through remote instruction through the 2019-2020 school year and develop a reopening plan that would meet the requirements of the State Department of Education.
Like the council, the School District saw a change in leadership. Superintendent Stephen Genco retired on July 1 after experiencing the strangest year of his long career in education. Assistant Superintendent Nicole Pormilli was approved by the School Board in the spring to take charge. She led the way working with fellow administrators, staff and with input from students and parents to the district’s reopening in September.
That opening included a hybrid of remote learning and in-person instruction. Some of the latter was interrupted by outbreaks of the coronavirus that had not been directly tied to exposure within the school district.
As high school bands could not experience their regular schedule, they combined their talent on the field this past fall with Jackson Memorial and Jackson Liberty high school band members coming together for a special performance. The bands showcased their talent before a limited audience made up of parents and residents of Jackson.
While the pandemic’s impact prevented many familiar Jackson events from happening such as Jackson Day and the Chamber of Commerce’s annual banquet to name but a few, it did inspire volunteers to come together to help their fellow man.
Food drives for the township’s food pantry were held and involved members of some of Jackson’s fire companies. A five-kilometer run, to support first responders in Jackson was held for the first time during the summer thanks to a township Boy Scout who created the event for his Eagle Scout project.
Members of the Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and the Jackson Baptist Church supported Jackson’s men and women in blue by providing two refrigerators and two water dispensers for the police department’s break room.
Jackson was one of the few if only, communities to go forward with a Christmas tree lighting event which followed health and safety guidelines. It also hosted the 15th annual Jackson Menorah lighting ceremony a week later.
Township officials and residents were pleased to see that despite the virus, the holidays were observed and people came together. Those present at both events noted the need for a better new year to come in 2021.