By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Sea Isle City Mayor Leonard Desiderio estimates that about 95 percent of the teenagers who visit the beach resort in the summer tourism season are well-behaved kids simply looking to have a good time.
But the other 5 percent have disrupted the summer two years in a row with rowdy behavior ranging from underage drinking to vandalism to theft.
Sea Isle is looking to rein in the troublemakers this summer by imposing a 10 p.m. curfew on the beaches and oceanfront Promenade for juveniles under 18 years of age.
Voting 5-0, City Council approved an ordinance Tuesday making the curfew a new law that will be in effect from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
In another ordinance aimed at curbing unruly behavior, Council unanimously approved a ban on backpacks on the Promenade and beaches.
The backpack ban will be in effect from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. each night between Memorial Day and Labor Day and will apply to both juveniles and adults. It is designed to prevent anyone from using backpacks at night to hide alcoholic beverages or other contraband.
There are exceptions in the backpack ban for police officers, fishermen out on the beach, equipment used by journalists and people carrying medical devices.
Desiderio and City Solicitor Paul Baldini described the curfew and backpack ban as “common-sense measures” that will help prevent large crowds of teens from getting into trouble without punishing them.
“It’s designed to get kids home, where they belong,” Baldini said of the curfew during the Council meeting.
Desiderio stressed that Baldini carefully researched both ordinances to ensure they are constitutional.
“The fact of the matter is that these ordinances are not severe,” Desiderio told City Council and members of the public during the meeting.
He added, “Both ordinances are very benign. We’re not looking to give any juveniles any (criminal) records.”
For the curfew, juveniles under the age of 18 generally will not be allowed out on the beaches, Promenade and the street ends on beach blocks from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.
However, there will be exceptions for minors who are accompanied by adults, are going to or returning from their summer jobs or are participating in formal activities such as recreation programs.
Baldini explained that police will give juveniles a number of warnings to go home if they are out after curfew. Only if the juveniles ignore repeated warnings will police have the authority to take them into custody and call their parents.
Juveniles will not be arrested or given a summons for violating the curfew, Baldini said.
Adults and juveniles will receive verbal warnings if they violate the backpack ban. After repeated warnings, police officers will have the discretion to take it to “the next level,” Sea Isle Police Chief Anthony Garreffi said.
For adults, that may mean they could be slapped with fines ranging from $25 to $100 for carrying backpacks after hours.
Juveniles, on the other hand, may be taken to a police substation, where they will wait until their parents or legal guardians come to pick them up. Police are planning to place a new substation at 40th Street and the Promenade over the summer.
No backpacks will be searched or confiscated, city officials said.
Sea Isle and other New Jersey beach towns have been dealing with an outburst of underage drinking, vandalism, theft and other crimes committed by juveniles for two summers in a row.
Sea Isle officials are toughening their local ordinances after repeatedly expressing frustration with state laws that place limits on police in dealing with troublemaking juveniles. For instance, under state law police may only give “curbside warnings” to teens who are drinking alcohol or smoking marijuana in public.
City Council President Mary Tighe called the curfew and backpack ban new “tools” to help Sea Isle police enforce the local laws.
Tighe said most of the teens just want to hang out with their friends on the beach or Promenade without causing trouble. But she added that it takes only one or two rowdy teens to stir up a larger crowd for the “mob mentality” to take over.
Tighe noted that unruly teens have been “making it miserable for other people who come here” during the last two summers.
“This is why we unfortunately have had to put these ordinances in place,” she said.
At Tighe’s suggestion, Sea Isle is placing a sunset clause in the curfew ordinance to revisit the issue in the fall after determining whether it was effective over the summer or needs to be revised.
“The public’s going to tell us how it’s going and how it’s not going,” Tighe said of the feedback the city expects to get on the curfew.
Desiderio pointed out that Sea Isle officials are imposing the curfew and backpack ban in response to concerns raised by local residents and visitors.
“As I’ve said before, we have a responsibility to the public; and we’ve talked about this enough,” he said about Sea Isle’s decision to take action.