TOMS RIVER – It was a day of historic firsts – selection of new leadership and a time to reflect on those who came before them during the recently held first meeting of the Ocean County Board of Commissioners.
This marked the first session of the Board with their new titles, replacing the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders, a term now discontinued in all county governments in New Jersey.
The Garden State was the last to rename the county position. The name “freeholder” dates back to the time when only white men could own land so only they could hold office.
Another first was that this meeting was limited in size and divided up into two rooms within the Ocean County Administration building’s room 119 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The meeting was limited to 25 people.
A familiar figure from prior Ocean County Freeholder reorganization meetings returned to provide the invocation and benediction during the session. Reverend James Occhipinti, chaplain for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and the Ocean County Sheriff’s Department noted his close friendship with Ocean County Commissioner John “Jack” P. Kelly who he met 50 years ago in Stafford Township while starting his ministry.
“You have been a blessing to me all these years,” he told Kelly.
“Reverend our family loves you,” Kelly replied.
Occhipinti referenced the words of the late Alex Trebek, who hosted the TV game show “Jeopardy” for 37 years. Trebek, knowing he was dying of cancer had made a message to viewers stating on the last segment he taped of the show, “may this become a gentler, kinder society, to open your hands and open your hearts.”
Reverend Occhipinti said that is what the Commissioners had done, opened their hearts and hands to the county’s residents. “Our hands are what we do, our hearts are who we are.”
Due to the coronavirus conditions, Ocean County Commissioner Joseph H. Vicari, who won re-election in November, was sworn in to office in a private ceremony on New Year’s Day instead of during the meeting.
Vicari recalled former Ocean County Freeholder and legendary high school football coach Warren Wolf who was his inspiration. “He said sometimes you win and sometimes you fail but you learn from the experience.”
“Many years ago, this seat belonged to a great man, Warren Wolf. When he ran for State Assembly, I was able to run and become a Freeholder,” Vicari said.
“There is no perfection in life, we learn every day,” Vicari added. He then nominated Ocean County Commissioner Gary Quinn who served as Deputy Director of the Ocean County Board of Freeholders last year. Quinn was soon joined by Gerry P. Little who will serve as the board’s deputy director.
“Certainly 2020 started out just like any other year and quickly turned into something none of us had experienced before. We closed our buildings, we closed our parks, our roads emptied. Doctors and grocery store clerks became heroes along with delivery drivers, nurses, government workers, law enforcement and EMTs just to name a few,” Quinn said.
Quinn added, “the good news is we are starting to see the rollout of the vaccination to curtail the spread of the coronavirus and while the task ahead is monumental, it is the greatest hope we have to end this deadly virus that has affected so many of us.”
“I can assure you; the Ocean County Board of Commissioners will continue to provide you with the best services and programs possible, albeit the delivery may be a bit different in order to protect the health and safety of our staff and residents,” Quinn added.
He also promised residents that “there will be no surprises when we soon announce the county budget” which will be under the direction of Commissioner Kelly, who serves as liaison to the Finance Department.
Quinn said “this board will again present a budget that combines affordability with outstanding core services. We will also continue to maintain our AAA Bond rating. We will not mortgage our children’s future or our grandchildren’s future. We will provide the services you need. We will come out of this better and stronger so long as we continue to work together for the common good – the health, safety and welfare of all.”