I hate to write these words at the beginning of what will hopefully be a splendiferous summer season for us all, but to paraphrase Hamlet, something is rotten in the city of Cape May. I have so much to say, I hardly know where to begin.
But let me start with Memorial Day weekend…
On Friday morning, Cape May’s Director of Public Works, Bob Smith, drove around the Carpenters Lane block seven or eight times – his movements were counted by the staff of Good Scents, a store on the corner of Jackson and Carpenters where, for years, a couple feral cats have held court, charming locals and tourists alike.
One of those times, by the way, Smith drove down Carpenters the wrong way – maybe you are allowed to do that when you are Director of Public Works. And another of those times, Cape May’s Chief of Police, Diane Sorantino, was with him.
Shortly after Smith’s little drivearound, Chief Sorantino walked into Good Scents with two of her new recruits, Class II officers who were recently employed to carry out code enforcement, a responsibility that the city agreed to hand over to the police force – a big mistake, in my view.
Chief Sorantino wanted to know if the staff of the shop were feeding feral cats.
So, we had the city’s Director of Public Works circle the store seven or eight times, and then we had the Chief of Police walk in there with two of her officers.
That was Friday.
On Saturday night, a police officer walked into Cucina Rosa restaurant on the mall and asked the staff if they had a permit to allow dining on the patio. They don’t, because no such physical permit exists. The officer ordered the patio to be shut down. Mercifully, the diners who were already on the patio were allowed to finish their meals.
Flashback to the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend last year, when visitors driving into Cape May on Lafayette Street were stopped and issued tickets for failing to wear seatbelts. At the time, I asked City Manager Lou Corea why the city had chosen to target tourists on such an important weekend. He accepted zero responsibility and said it was out of the city’s hands since that weekend had been mandated for the campaign. Wrong. I recently discovered that the Click It Or Ticket! campaign ran from May 21 to June 3 last year and enforcement was at the discretion of each town. So Corea was either telling fibs or exercising bone-headed judgement. And not for the last time…
Okay, now I’m going to take these events one at a time, because I think the circumstances make for very interesting reading.
Why did Bob Smith and Chief Sorantino think that their time was well spent on what I would call harassing the staff of Good Scents, a store that’s a credit to the town?
Well, unless you’ve been sticking your head in the sand these past few months, you will know that the city was essentially forced into adopting a beach management plan, under pressure from NJ Department of Environmental Protection and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, that exerted a tighter control on Cape May’s feral cat population. The state and feds were worried that local cats were preying on piping plover nests which allegedly exist on the beaches and warned the city that unless it adopted this new plan money for vital beach replenishment might be withheld.
And so business people or residents who were keeping feral cat colonies inside a 1,000-foot buffer zone from the beach were told they would have to register with the city, and then erect cat-proof fencing. Or face losing their cats altogether.
What I have always found most curious about this story is HOW the state and feds got involved in the first place. For years, Cape May has been running a Trap-Neuter-Return program that has been lauded as one of the most successful around – the population in Cape May has been reduced by 75% in five years. It’s simply fantastical to state that hordes of feral cats are wandering the beaches, stalking piping plovers. So how did Cape May get singled out?
Harry Bellangy, who unsuccesfully ran for council in the May 13 election, has written articulately about this issue, and I’d like to quote him.
“The cat issue in Cape May is, and, let’s not kid ourselves, artificial, fake, phony. To say nothing of stupid. There are not now and never have been any cats near any nesting areas in Cape May – if, in fact there are any nesting areas in Cape May. The maps indicate one in Lower Township and the other on federal property at the Coast Guard Training Center.
“If there were nesting areas, Cape May’s beaches would have to be closed, something that is not about to happen. If there are or were nesting areas on our beaches there would be no July 4 fireworks.
“The cat issue is a contrived issue that has and will continue to bring negative publicity to Cape May. No other community receiving beach replenishment funds has had to take such a draconian approach to cats or for that matter even discuss cats. A person or persons in Cape May’s employee appears to have used the DEP and Fish and Wildlife as co-conspirators in the cat elimination plan. Council does not appear to be involved in the origination of this plan, only city employees.
“This is an artificially created issue for some devious and some may say evil reason. Even the mayor agreed, in a public meeting, that this issue was created by someone in Cape May’s employee. His agreement was picked up and reported by the Gazette. We are now stuck with this unwarranted issue.
“Don’t our city employees have more important matters to take care of rather than checking to see if someone is feeding a cat? What an incredible waste of taxpayers’ money! What arrogance!”
I have spoken to half a dozen people, all closely involved with this issue, in the last couple weeks who all believe that Bob Smith is the person who asked the DEP and the F&W Service to help him deal with Cape May’s feral cat “problem.”
This is the same Bob Smith who, the same people say, was cracking sick jokes the day after the fire, a year ago, that killed 37 cats in trailers at the Public Works compound. I guess Smith wasn’t too upset by the fire because he had apparently been saying for quite some time that he wasn’t too happy having the cats around.
I asked Jim Cramer, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife, if the impetus for feral cat control had come from Cape May. I asked because I’d heard about the existence of emails between Smith and one of Cramer’s bosses at Fish and Wildlife.
Cramer said that wasn’t the case and said the issue had come up as a result of regular monitoring of piping plover nests.
When I told him this issue was still a seething pot of controversy and that the Director of Public Works and Chief of Police were taking a very close interest in the feral cat colonies, he seemed surprised.
“How closely will Fish and Wildlife be monitoring the control of Cape May’s feral cats,” I asked him.
“We won’t be. That’s the city’s responsibility. All we are really interested in are the piping plover nesting areas and we will be checking them out from time to time.”
In the words of one city council member I spoke to: “When it comes to dealing with the feds and the state, sometimes it’s just bureacracy. You sign off on something and you don’t really hear much about it again. It’s a technicality.”
In other words, Cape May satisfied the authorities by declaring its intention to closely monitor its feral cat colony in accordance with the beach management plan.
Did this mean the city had to turn Cape May into a police state?
Does any sane, smart person truly believe that feral cats are a bigger nuisance to the piping plovers than frisbee-throwing teenagers, couples going on romantic walks, or rats and racoons?!
And now a word about cat-proof fencing. Can you imagine the Historic Preservation Commission allowing stores on the mall or homes on Columbia Avenue to erect fencing? That would look great on the MAC trolley tours, wouldn’t it?
This is one of several questions I asked Lou Corea, City Manager, on Friday.
Did he or Chief Sorantino ever think to check with the HPC whether cat-proof fencing would even be allowed.
“No,” he said.
“Don’t you think that would have been a good idea,” I said.
“Have you seen cat-proof fencing?” asked Corea. “It’s really not that obvious.”
I went online and checked some out. Okay, so it’s not the most auspicioius form of fencing on the market, but I still can’t imagine it being allowed by the HPC, and don’t you think Lou Corea would figure that, too?
To sum up the cat problem, I believe that somewhere between the City Manager, Chief of Police and Public Works Director there is some kind of agenda that the city council, the folks who are actually elected to make policy, are unaware of.
And now the raid on Cucina Rosa… I asked Lou Corea why a police officer was sent to a restaurant on Saturday night to close down the patio.
“No one sent him,” said Corea. “It was just part of his normal mall walk-through.”
I expressed disbelief at this. “Believe what you want,” said Corea. “You’ll probably just go and write another story about how we’re the big, bad guys.”
The officer who visited Cucina Rosa told the staff that he had been sent there by the police chief. When a police officer from Lower Township, who is married to one of the restaurant’s employees, called Chief Sorantino over that weekend to ask why this visit had happened, she replied that it was out of her hands and that the order had come from the city manager.
And now here’s the cherry on top… the owners of Cucina Rosa had no clue they were violating the patio ordinance, because they had never been informed about it.
Several months ago, the city council was having trouble agreeing on fees to charge merchants who use their patios – primarily restaurants. So while they were arguing about costs, they divided the ordinance into two sections and voted on one part which called for merchants to adhere to certain rules, like the color of furniture (has to be green or black) and the need for fencing.
Trouble is, the city never bothered to inform the merchants that they had to comply. The ones who DID find out appear to have done so by happenstance.
Shirley Goodroe owns A Ca Mia, an Italian restaurant on the mall. She only heard about the ordinance after Cape May’s code enforcement officer asked her to take her furniture down one day while he was walking the mall and she was getting prepared for the big holiday weekend. He told her the furniture didn’t conform. Shirley went straight to city hall and had several meetings with Corea, filled out forms, drew little plans showing how many tables she’d be using, and eventually spent $6,000 on new furniture to comply.
“I never received any word from city hall about this,” she said. “I would never have found out if I hadn’t been stopped on the mall. It’s unbelievably frustrating.”
When Guy Portewig, executive chef of Cucina Rosa, called Lou Corea to complain about Saturday night’s shutdown, he was told his restaurant had received a certified letter, like every other mall merchant who operated patios. When Portewig assured him no letter had been received, Corea told him: “You can say you never got it, but I have proof that you did.”
Corea later told two members of city council that certified letters had been mailed.
On the Tuesday after the shutdown, Cucina Rosa owner Dave Clemans went to City Hall to ask for proof that a certified letter had been sent. Corea never came out of his office, but one of his staff told Clemans that no certified letter had been mailed.
By the time I asked Corea about this, last Friday, he had changed his story and told me that every mall merchant who operated patios had been sent letters by regular mail.
“No one seems to have received these letters either,” I said.
“I don’t understand that. They were sent,” said Corea.
“Seems strange,” I said.
“Maybe there was a problem at the post office,” said Corea, who was, by this stage, becoming angry.
“You know, we don’t even HAVE to inform the merchants of this ordinance,” said Corea. “I just thought it would be a good idea if we let them know.”
“Then how could they know about ordinances if you didn’t tell them,” I asked, a little incredulous at this claim.
“Well, they could read about it, couldn’t they,” said Corea.
“You mean to say, you expect merchants to find out about ordinances by reading about it in the paper?!” I asked.
“Don’t twist my words,” said Corea.
“So how were they supposed to find out?” I asked.
“I told you they were sent letters.”
“I don’t believe you,” I replied.
“Well you go off and write what you want,” said Corea.
Before Corea came to Cape May he was the business administrator for Mount Olive Township, in north Jersey. His contract was not renewed after his second four-year stint ended. After that, Corea became involved in a bitter, public dispute over sick pay that he argued he was owed. The case looked like it would go to court before the township voted in October 2000 to settle.
The minutes of a meeting from that month (which are available online) show council member Ronald Heymann urged his fellow council members to settle the dispute, saying: “We all got our wish, Mr. Corea is many miles away. He can’t be farther and still be in the State of New Jersey. So, let’s move from here and get going.”
Boy, I bet that particular passage wasn’t included on Corea’s resumé when he interviewed for the job in Cape May.
If this column reads like a head-hunt, that’s unfortunate. My point was to demonstrate that some very questionable decisions are being made in Cape May that are not coming from the elected city council members. That’s what you get with this form of government, unfortunately, though I think the situation becomes exacerbated when the City Manager is headstrong and sometimes bone-headed, while, at the same time, remaining unwilling to take responsibility for those decisions.
I wish I could share more of the stories I’ve heard in the last couple weeks about some of the people whose high salaries you pay. One, in particular, would make your blood chill. But I don’t have the corroboration – not yet, anyway.
I believe that this town has elected some good people to city council in the last few years. People with experience, intelligence, compassion and wisdom.
On the other hand, I believe that some of the stuff emanating from the City Manager’s office, and involving his trusted lieutenants, just plain stinks.
In a small town like Cape May, I believe that the leading public officials, whether it be the City Manager or the Chief of Police, should be able to pick up the phone to deal with civil issues in a civil way, and not treat folks like criminals.
This city signed off on the beach management plan and it seems fairly clear that the feral cats could be quite easily monitored without all this nonsense and aggravation that we are seeing. Sadly, ever since the fire that killed those 37 cats, certain people in the city have been pushing for the total eradication of feral cats. What a strange tale that is.
As for the patio permits, Lou Corea greeted Cucina Rosa owner Dave Clemans and his wife Chris at the opening of Cape May Stage’s renovated theater the Thursday before Memorial Day. Wouldn’t it have been nice for Corea to have said, “Dave, I notice we didn’t get a patio permit application filled out from you.” Especially when it seems clear that Corea never mailed the applications (unless they mysteriously went missing at the post office).
I think it’s time for the city council to let Lou Corea know that harassing law-abiding business people is not something that can be tolerated.
And I think it might be time for the city council to reconsider its hasty decision to hand over code enforcement to the police force.
Incoming mayor, Ed Mahaney, has been talking a lot about providing strong leadership on this council, even though the mayoral position in this form of government is little more than decorative. Wherever the leadership comes from, it seems clear that Lou Corea needs to be reined in.
When police officers (and the Public Works Director) are patrolling the town looking for friendly, feral cats to take to the pound to meet their maker; and when restaurants are being prevented from doing business, through no fault of their own, by men in uniform, don’t you think it’s time to say… hold on just a minute?