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Atlantic County commissioners' seat could remain vacant for months

Atlantic County commissioners' seat could remain vacant for months

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The District 3 Atlantic County commissioner position is likely to remain vacant for several months, after a judge decertified the election of Democrat Thelma Witherspoon on Monday because hundreds of incorrect ballots were sent to voters in the district.

“Under Executive Order 211, all pending elections of any nature must be deferred until April 20,” said the attorney for the Board of Commissioners, Roger Steedle, at Tuesday’s reorganization meeting. “Such pending elections are to occur at one time.”

Gov. Phil Murphy signed the order Dec. 21 as a COVID-19 safety measure.

Steedle said it is unclear whether the election in April will be via machines at polling places or will be another mostly vote-by-mail election.

Re-elected incumbent Atlantic County Commissioners Caren Fitzpatrick, a Democrat, and John Risley, a Republican, were sworn in for three-year terms at the meeting — the first since the name of the body changed from the Board of Chosen Freeholders to the Board of County Commissioners.

“I thought Dr. Thelma Witherspoon would be taking office today,” said Commissioner Ernest Coursey, a Democrat who represents Atlantic City and Pleasantville.

That changed “at the 11-teenth hour,” Coursey said. “In my opinion, the votes in District 3 were thrown out the door.”

Democrats have said they will appeal the judge’s decision.

On Monday, Superior Court Judge Joseph Marczyk decertified the District 3 election, saying a mistake made by Atlantic County Clerk Ed McGettigan had denied 328 people their legal right to vote in that election, and a new election must be held.

Witherspoon, of Hamilton Township, defeated Republican Andrew Parker, of Egg Harbor Township, 15,034 to 14,748. But the margin of 286 was smaller than the number of disenfranchised voters, the judge said, so he ordered the new election.

The district covers most of Egg Harbor and some of Hamilton townships.

Maureen Kern was re-elected chairman, and Risley was elected vice chair.

There was a controversy over the schedule of meetings for the coming year, which was approved. The board meets most weeks on Tuesdays.

Democrats objected to the meetings all being scheduled for 4 p.m., rather than alternating between 4 and 6 p.m.

“We work for the people, and we should make the opportunity to come to the meetings in the off hours at least once a month,” said Fitzpatrick, who had lobbied for evening meetings to accommodate those who work. “This is disappointing.”

Kern said the board’s experience with Zoom meetings has shown that the time of the meeting doesn’t affect how many people participate. What is important is interest in the topics covered.

The communications committee will be charged with finding ways to get information out to the public more effectively about meetings, Kern said.

Fitzpatrick and Coursey voted against the schedule, which passed with the support of the six Republicans.

Coursey and Republican Jim Bertino, of Hammonton, teased each other as each continued to use the term “freeholder” from time to time.

“We are now county commissioners, but old habits are hard to break,” Coursey said.

Legislation passed in August and signed into law by Murphy determined that beginning Jan. 1, all “boards of chosen freeholders” will be known as “boards of county commissioners.”

New Jersey was the only state in the country still using the term.

“Changing the title of ‘freeholder’ is long overdue. People know the term is offensive and refers to a time when only white male landowners could hold public office,” Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver said at the time the bill was passed. Oliver swore in Fitzpatrick to her new term over the internet Tuesday, while state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, swore in Risley.

Contact: 609-272-7219

Twitter @MichelleBPost

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Related to this story

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A Superior Court judge on Monday revoked the election of Democrat Thelma Witherspoon as District 3 Atlantic County Commissioner and ordered a new election be held to fill the position because the county clerk sent 554 voters the wrong vote-by-mail ballots — affecting only the District 3 race.

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