TOMS RIVER – Development, open space, and taxes are issues every year in town. Looking back, we will take this time to point out the biggest stories that could only happen in 2021.
While there were some great, new things that happened, like the opening of the skate park, there were definitely some rough spots.
David Healy retired from the superintendent position, with the end of 2020 as his last days. He originally came to the district in 2014.
Thomas Gialanella was chosen as interim superintendent by the Board of Education. Previously, he had been the superintendent for Jackson and served as an interim for Brick. He also served as interim superintendent the last time Toms River had a superintendent search.
Then, retired Jackson Superintendent Stephen Genco filled in as the interim Superintendent of Toms River Schools.
Two options for a permanent superintendent have become known – current assistant superintendent James Ricotta and James Altobello, director of secondary instruction for the Hamilton School District.
There have been accusations that three of the board members are being influenced politically in their choices. Specifically, Kevin Kidney, Ashley Palmiere and Lisa Contessa are accused of being pushed by Toms River Councilman Daniel Rodrick to vote for Altobello.
These three board members want Altobello and the other six want Ricotta. The problem is that two of those six have to abstain. It’s 3-4. Therefore, there was no way to reach a majority vote of five.
Joseph Nardini and Kathleen Eagan have to abstain because they have conflicts of interest, which usually denotes a family member working for the district.
Rodrick has said publicly that he did not influence the board members.
A Nasty Election
A tumultuous election season resulted in long-time Councilwoman Maria Maruca losing a primary election to challenger Justin Lamb. Lamb and Rodrick won in November, under the banner Make New Jersey Great Again.
James J. Quinlisk and David J. Ciccozzi, from the Regular Republican Organization of Ocean County, also won. They unseated Democrat Terrance Turnbach. The other Democrat on council, Laurie Huryk, decided not to run for re-election.
Surf Club Purchase
The long-awaited purchase of Joey Harrison’s Surf Club became a reality.
The Ortley Beach nightclub was destroyed by Superstorm Sandy and has remained closed ever since. Locals have urged the township to purchase it and turn it into a recreational area. One plan would have a boardwalk and gazebo there. Between the existing parking lot, and more that would be added, there could be 100 spots. The property, located at 1900 Ocean Avenue in Ortley Beach, is one of the few ocean-front tracts of land on the market. A developer had been circling it in the past.
Former Mayor Kelaher Remembered
Former Mayor Thomas Kelaher passed away at 88, leaving behind a legacy of community service. He served as mayor from 2008 to 2020, but his career spanned law enforcement, military, journalism and more. In addition to all his roles in the community, Kelaher was a devoted family man.
“He was just an outstanding individual. A first class guy and a good friend. He was not the least bit taken with himself,” said good friend Joseph Buckalew, former head of the county’s Republicans. “He’s going to be sorely missed.”
While Kelaher attributed his success as mayor to having good employees, Buckalew said he was being modest. Kelaher was someone who took responsibilities seriously and was always up to the task.
“Anyone who knew Tom knew he was very outgoing, gregarious. He had a tremendous sense of humor and he always had a plethora of funny stories and anecdotes,” he said.
He had still been involved in his legal practice. He had been appointed as Ocean County Prosecutor for five years, his term ending in 2007.
He had been a Marine, a newspaper photographer, started a law practice, and was appointed a deputy Attorney General of New Jersey by Governor Richard J. Hughes. That’s not to mention the amount of time he gave to community organizations.
The Department of Veterans Affairs issued an award to a Toms River plan to build a new “Community Based Outpatient Clinic” off of Hooper Avenue.
The current facility, the James J. Howard clinic on Route 70 in Brick, has long been considered too small for the amount of people who use it. Parking and traffic also make it difficult to access.
The new location would be between the Seacourt Pavilion Shopping Center and the Esplanade Office Park on Hooper Avenue, behind the currently vacant Capital One bank.
This is called the Hooper-Caudina Redevelopment Area. Caudina is the road that comes out from Seacourt and meets a traffic light across from the big Presbyterian church.
Other plans for that property will include apartments and retail. The township has also been trying to get the post office moved from downtown Toms River to this location.
“This is a big win for the veterans of Ocean County and surrounding counties because they will no longer need to find transportation to East Orange for many of their needs,” Mayor Maurice Hill said. “In addition, the Ocean County’s new Social Services Building will be constructed right next to the new VA clinic site and will include the Ocean County Veterans Service Bureau, which provides ‘one stop shop’ convenience for many of the needs of the men and women who heroically served our nation. It is the least we can do for them. I’d like to thank Congressman Kim and his staff, as well the County Commissioners, County Administrator and County Engineer and their staff for their help and coordination over the past year.”
COVID, Of Course
No discussion of the year is complete without the defining story of 2021. Although the virus made landfall in 2020, on an international level, the coronavirus dominated the 24-hour news cycle to the point of exhaustion.
The vaccines became widely available in 2021. Although ‘breakthrough’ cases of COVID-19 do happen among the vaccinated, they are generally of a weaker intensity. Statistics showed that unvaccinated were six times more likely to have to go to a hospital.
As the medical community learned more about the virus, state regulations reflected that. Many people expressed frustration that the guidance and the Executive Orders seemed to change almost weekly.
A very vocal minority of residents urged school officials to fight back against Trenton, but school officials have said that they face punishment from the state if they don’t follow the rules.
While some events, like the Ocean County Fair were still cancelled, other events like the fireworks over the Toms River and the Halloween parade came back.
As state voters approved a referendum in 2020 to legalize cannabis industries, each town had to decide whether to allow them or not. Most decided against it. Only South Toms River and Lakehurst approved them.
Toms River put together a commission that met many times to discuss it but eventually the Township Council banned cannabis industries.
Commissioner Little Retires
County Commissioner Gerry Little, 72, of Surf City, announced he would not seek re-election. He had been appointed in 2003 to fill the term of the late James Mancini. He has held the seat ever since.
The title of “commissioner” was once called “freeholder.” They oversee all county operations. Upon his announcement, many prominent Republicans stepped up to fill his shoes. Ultimately, Little Egg Harbor Mayor Barbara Jo Crea was selected by the local GOP, and she won the seat in the November election.
Commissioner Vicari Eyes Trenton
County Commissioner Joseph Vicari threw his hat in the ring for the GOP nod for governor early in the year before eventually withdrawing his name.
He urged that whoever does get the nod should faithfully serve Ocean County residents and not just look to them as a pack of votes.
This was not the first time Vicari had considered a run for this office. At least one other time he had put out feelers to gauge his candidacy going back at least 15 years.
GOP Boss Pardoned
President Donald Trump granted clemency to 143 people on his last day in office, including former Ocean County Republican Chairman George Gilmore.
Gilmore, of Toms River, was convicted of not paying federal income tax for his employees and lying on a loan application. He was sentenced to one year and one day in prison. Gilmore had been in the process of appealing his conviction on the tax evasion and fraud charges.
According to The White House press release, he has made important civic contributions over his career in New Jersey.
Gilmore’s law firm did work for a number of towns, which dissolved their contracts with him after his arrest. He also had to step down from being chairman of the county Republicans. Frank Holman took his place, but Gilmore is reportedly still very influential in local politics.
Sandy Loans Forgiven
It’s been nine years but municipalities that still owed the federal government money after Superstorm Sandy had their loans forgiven.
This amounts to more than $25 million in New Jersey alone. In Ocean County, there were $12 million outstanding in these Community Disaster Loans.
The bill forgiving these amounts was championed by Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-6th), Congressman Andy Kim (D-3rd), and Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-12th). It was signed into law as part of the government operations bill by President Joe Biden.
Some towns have already started repaying these loans but there was still a lot left over. The only way towns would have been able to pay it back would be to raise taxes.
Protection From COVID Lawsuits
There was a great sigh of relief when senior communities opened their public buildings and allowed residents to use their amenities like pools and meeting rooms. However, the protection from lawsuits against these communities was not to last forever.
State law was changed to indemnify those who run these buildings. They are called “common areas” and include more than just senior communities. However, in this area it is almost entirely seniors who are being impacted.
The law granted protection from any lawsuits against the community and members of its boards. Before this protection was granted, a visitor could theoretically sue the Board of Directors and the directors individually if they thought they contracted coronavirus in the clubhouse, for example. That protection ran out on January 1, 2022.