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Wildwood City Council fails to fill vacancy on first try

On June 10, tender moments of somber reflection on the years of service given by the late Ray Manton quickly disappeared as the city’s divided council once again resorted to factional politics.

Manton passed away on May 16 at age 75. The Ward 2 resident served multiple terms on the city council member and as a member of the city’s Town Center Advisory Panel, the Board of Ethics, the Board of Adjustment and the Planning & Zoning Commission. He was last elected in April 2018, meaning that the current council needs to appoint someone to fill his seat until the next municipal election on April 7, 2020.

“This should not be a political decision,” council member Lauren Edens [Ward 2] said on June 10 in regard to choosing Manton’s successor. “This is about filling a vacancy. This is not an election … this is about Ray Manton’s legacy.”

Per the city’s charter, when a vacancy occurs, the mayor must nominate a replacement to serve out the remainder of the vacant term. Prior to assuming the role of council member, the nominee must be approved by a majority of the council.

Mikel Garrett
Mikel Garrett [Source: company webpage]

On June 10, Mikel Garrett, a local business owner and longtime Wildwood resident, was nominated by Mayor Jim Bowlin based on Edens’ recommendation. Garrett’s civic engagement includes serving as the president of the Wildwood Business Association and several residents spoke in support of his nomination during the public participation portion of the meeting.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Mikel, and he’s as honest as the day is long,” Ward 4 resident Vern Hutson said. “There’s not a better man out there in Ward 2 that I can think of.”

While there were no members of the public who spoke against Garrett’s nomination, concerns were raised from some city council members. Specifically, Garrett’s relationship with and comments about a former candidate for city council were brought to the foreground. In a post on his personal Facebook page earlier this year, Garrett encouraged his friends to vote for Lauren Edens and not her opponent, Tony Salvatore, in the Ward 2 election.

“He [Salvatore] is negative … petty, and will continue the ill will that is so pervasive on the council today,” Garrett wrote in the post.

[Source: Mikel Garrett’s Facebook page]

Citing the post, several council members raised concerns about Garrett’s political predisposition and his ability to be unbiased toward Salvatore, who has a pending lawsuit filed against the city.

“There are a lot of questions with the residents about this post,” council member Crystal McCune [Ward 7] said. “The matter is not what he said. It’s not egregious … the problem is he’s taken a position with a person in litigation with the city. When we start talking about this litigation in closed session, he is already against Tony Salvatore.”

Council member Cheryl Jordan [Ward 6] said, “I believe [Garrett] is a nice person and has given a tremendous amount of service to the city … but at the end of the day, my vote has got to be for what’s right for the city. I think given he’s displayed a very strong bias [against Salvatore] and it’s in print, it’s in documentation, it’s in circulation … I can’t in good conscience [vote in favor of his nomination].”

Others on the council adamantly argued in favor of Garrett’s right to express his political beliefs.

“He has the right as a citizen of the United States of America to voice his perspective and his opinion when he is not seated as a council member as openly as many others who are sitting here have had,” council member Katie Dodwell [Ward 4] said. She added that spouses or other close relatives of council members also freely voice their personal perspectives on local issues.

Dodwell argued that personal perspectives of either Garrett or current members of the city council have no bearing on the pending lawsuit against the city.

Council member Steve Taylor [Ward 4] accused some council members of using the concerns around Garrett’s nomination as yet another way to attack Bowlin.

“It’s a tempest in the teapot,” Taylor said. “There are some people who believe they know how this city used to be and should be in the future – and they are clawing, clinging onto the dais as election results are leading us to the future.”

Taylor asked City Attorney John Young if there was any legal reason why the council could not appoint a nominee who had expressed a political opinion relevant to the last election. Young immediately responded that there was no legal barrier to approving Garrett.

When the roll call vote was held, Garrett’s nomination failed to garner the necessary votes to pass. Council members who voted in favor of approving Garrett included Larry McGowen [Ward 1], Lauren Edens [Ward 2], Kenneth Remy [Ward 3], Steve Taylor [Ward 4], Katie Dodwell [Ward 4], Dave Bertolino [Ward 5], Debra McCutchen [Ward 5] and Joe Garritano [Ward 8].

Voting against Garrett’s nomination were John Gragnani [Ward 1], Kevin Dillard [Ward 3], Jon Bopp [Ward 6], Cheryl Jordan [Ward 6], Crystal McCune [Ward 7], Tim Woerther [Ward 7] and Niles Stephens [Ward 8].

After the council failed to approve Garrett’s nomination, about a dozen residents, several of whom had spoken in support of Garrett, walked out of the meeting. Rumblings in the outer hallway and angry conversations could be heard for several minutes.

Bowlin also expressed his frustration with the council and those who voted against Garrett’s nomination. In a statement delivered at the close of the meeting, Bowlin accused some members of the council of obstructionism and putting personal politics above the city’s best interests.

“Since 1789, the U.S. Senate has rejected 7% of Supreme Court appointees. A few Wildwood council members have blown through that in just three years – they’ve rejected 75% of our resident volunteers who wanted to serve – rejecting subdivision trustees, a retired teacher, a firefighter and tonight, a 10-year member of our Board of Adjustment from Ward 2 that is now without one of its two voices on the council,” Bowlin said

Council member Kevin Dillard [Ward 3] responded with his own lengthy statement posted to Facebook in which he attacked Bowlin.

“Wildwood deserves better than this,” Dillard wrote in reference to Bowlin. “The council has refused his nominees at a 75% clip over the last three years because they collectively don’t trust his judgment. There are 16 of us and one of him. [Bowlin] is the problem.”

For his part, Bowlin pledged to fulfill his responsibilities and bring a new nominee to the next meeting. However, he said, “To avoid any further harm to our residents wanting to serve, I will be presenting no more than two candidates as required by our charter, and the Ward 2 position will be on each council meeting agenda until it is filled.”

The mayor wasn’t the only one voicing sadness and frustration over the vote.

“A very sad night for the citizens of Wildwood!” council member Joe Garritano [Ward 8] posted to social media after the meeting. “Mr. Garrett is a well qualified citizen that has volunteered for this city for over a decade. Resident after resident spoke in high regard for Mr. Garrett. It is unfortunate their voices were not heard by some.”

Dillard characterized the reaction of some over the failed nomination of Garrett as “fake outrage” and took to social media to explain his opposition.

“My biggest concern is that he was involved with the Progress for Wildwood PAC, which in my opinion was one of the most divisive, damaging and destructive forces in Wildwood’s history. It advanced a partisan agenda in a non-partisan election, didn’t vet candidates fairly, and was operating simply as a way for some folks to get around campaign spending limits,” Dillard wrote on a post to his Facebook page. ” … It’s a judgment issue, and I’m wary of anyone who was involved with it.”

On his Facebook page, Bowlin went the extra step of calling on supporters to remember which council members voted against Garrett’s nomination when they come up for reelection next year. As to whether Garrett could yet be appointed, Bowlin said he will be offered again as the nominee if the council does not approve his [Bowlin’s] next candidate.

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