By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
Politically speaking, Sea Isle City is an anachronism.
At a time when rancorous partisan politics dominate nationwide, Sea Isle is about to hold a municipal election that by all indications will be, well, civil.
All three incumbents on City Council have no opposition in the decidedly low-key May 11 election. They are also running on a united ticket that ignores party affiliation.
Councilman J.B. Feeley has been the leader of the local Democratic Party for 40 years, while Councilwoman Mary Tighe and Councilman Jack Gibson are Republicans.
“We are a team,” Feeley said of the bipartisan ticket.
Tighe, Gibson and Feeley also ran as a unified ticket when they faced no opposition during the 2017 election. In what was his first election then, Feeley became the first Democrat to join Council since Sea Isle began the Mayor-Council form of government in 2007.
Sea Isle’s elections are usually devoid of any vitriol or drama because the incumbents routinely run without opposition. There have been no challengers for any of the Council or mayoral races dating back to at least the 2015 election.
Council members serve four-year terms and are chosen at-large in a nonpartisan municipal election.
The five-member City Council also includes William Kehner Sr. and Frank Edwardi Jr., who will not be up for re-election until 2023. Mayor Leonard Desiderio heads the city administration. Desiderio, who has served as mayor since 1993, will not be up for re-election until 2023.
With Tuesday’s election approaching fast, Tighe, Gibson and Feeley said they have been out in the community to thank residents for their support and remind them to vote.
All three indicated they believe that the lack of opposition to their candidacy is a sign that voters are satisfied with them on Council.
“I think they’re happy with the direction we’ve taken Sea Isle in,” Tighe said. “If not, they know they have a voice. We do a very good job of listening.”
Gibson called it “a vote of confidence” in the incumbents.
“We’re here to listen to people, even if we see them after church, during coffee breaks or out on the street,” Gibson said.
Feeley said that although the campaign is a low-key affair, the candidates have still been making the rounds to connect with voters. He said a lot of residents intend to vote to show their support for the incumbents.
“I’d like to believe we’re doing a good job,” Feeley said. “They’re satisfied. If someone has an issue, we’re on top of it. They have our ear.”
Tighe, 51, is one of the five original Council members who were elected when Sea Isle switched from a Commission-style form of government to the Mayor-Council format in 2007. She is the assistant director of nursing for the Cape May County Health Department in her full-time job.
This is Tighe’s fifth election in Sea Isle and the fourth in a row where she has been unopposed.
Gibson, 87, who served in the state Assembly for 12 years but lost his seat when seeking re-election 2005, won his first term on Sea Isle Council in 2013. He is a semi-retired civil engineer.
Feeley, 72, formerly served in a number of appointed positions over the years, including the Sea Isle Planning Board and as chairman of the Cape May County Board of Elections. He retired in 2014 from his position as senior project development officer at the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, a state agency that uses Atlantic City casino revenue for housing and economic development projects.
During their current term on Council, Tighe, Gibson and Feeley have been working with Kehner, Edwardi and Desiderio’s administration on a series of flood-mitigation projects to help protect the low-lying island from stormwater.
Gibson said rising sea levels pose a serious threat to the shore. He views flooding as the most important issue facing Sea Isle, not only right now but quite possibly for the next 50 to 100 years.
“Sea levels are rising faster than we would like. But that doesn’t mean we can’t stay ahead of it with beach replenishment projects, bulkheads and berms,” Gibson said.
Another major issue is the proposed redevelopment of the former Sea Isle City Public School into a community recreation center costing an estimated $20 million. With the pandemic pushing up the cost of construction materials, the estimated price of the community center has risen from $15 million to $20 million recently.
Tighe expressed concern about the higher price and the implications on the city’s tax rate.
“I think it’s a little much,” said of the $20 million cost.
She noted she is seeking more information from Sea Isle’s Business Administrator George Savastano and Chief Financial Officer Paula Doll about the project’s impact on the tax rate. Those details have not yet been announced by the city.
“I would like to see more info,” Tighe said of the financial aspects of the project.
Tighe also questioned whether Sea Isle, a town with about 2,000 year-round residents, would fully utilize a large building that will double as a community center and recreation facility.
“Are we really getting enough bang for our buck?” she said.
The city plans to demolish the former public school on Park Road to make room for a new community recreation center. The school closed in 2012 due to Sea Isle’s declining student enrollment. Tighe, Gibson and Feeley all support the concept of demolishing the school site and building a new recreation center.
Council and the mayor are still working with the community on the final details of the project, including its scope and cost, before construction begins.
The city has been soliciting comments from the public about the project through email. Feeley said most people have indicated in their emails that they are in favor of the community center.
“We’re getting a lot of positive feedback,” he said.