In the prophetic words of Mayor Phil Guenther, the Brigantine City Council meeting of October 15, 2014 did contain what he predicted would be, “a very good YouTube clip.” Unfortunately, the portion of the meeting to which he was referring did not pertain to the over-inflated city payroll, the golf course or flood damage prevention. Instead, it showed a very revealing symptom of the problem at the heart of many of Brigantine’s ills: the arrogance and refusal to be accountable to residents displayed by the city’s longtime Mayor.
The video clip, which has gone viral, depicted the portion of the meeting devoted to questions and comments from residents. It is common knowledge that there have been frequent breaches in decorum during some of these sessions, sometimes by residents, more often by city employees. This, however, was not one of those instances.
Very politely, Mr. Marcozzi, an elderly Brigantine resident, approached the microphone and addressed a question to the Mayor. Mr. Marcozzi prefaced his question by proclaiming himself a registered Republican and member of the Brigantine Taxpayer’s Association. After stating that he did not mean his question as a personal attack and that he was only asking, “in a quest for information, for the truth”, Mr. Marcozzi began by quoting a line from one of the Mayor’s recent political ads: “Who Can You Trust When It Comes To Property Taxes?”
That very debatable question aside, Mr. Marcozzi went on to compare that ad verbiage to an ad placed by the McClay/Kern/Polillo campaign, which accused Councilman Andy Simpson of failure to pay property taxes for two years. The ad further claimed that Mr. Simpson had never received a Certificate of Occupancy, yet he was earning rent in excess of $100,00 per year on a property for which he owed $59,000 in back taxes, and that the Mayor had not only turned a blind eye to the situation, but had even attended fund-raisers at the house in question.
Mr. Marcozzi went on to ask Mayor Guenther if the accusations in the ads were true, and if so, what possible explanation he could offer. If the accusations were false, Mr. Marcozzi asked that the Mayor refute them and that Councilpersons McClay, Kern and Polillo explain themselves. It seemed like a very relevant, respectfully-asked question, with no political overtones, just a sincere inquiry regarding a specific and potentially very important subject. With both the accusers and the accused all in the same room, this seemed the perfect time to get to the bottom of this potentially very serious issue.
The Mayor’s response has raised more than a few eyebrows. Obviously feeling that he was being attacked, Mayor Guenther launched into an extended monologue about how he knew that televising Council meetings would result in “political attacks”, but that the good of keeping the community informed outweighed “some of the outrageous things that have occurred in this chamber.” While I’m sure we can all agree that some pretty outrageous things have occurred in that chamber, Mr. Marcozzi’s question was not one of them. It also seems significant that the Mayor’s first thought was not to answer the question, but to articulate his concerns on how this would be perceived by TV and internet audiences, now that the City Council is no longer a closed set.
The Mayor continued his non-response by attempting to turn the tables on Mr. Marcozzi, saying, “You are the only one tonight who has brought up political ads.”
Perhaps this was meant to to imply that his questioner was motivated by a political agenda, or possibly to relegate him to the “kook” category, a favorite tactic of the GOP when faced with persistent inquiries as to their behavior and policies. Whatever his motivation for this seeming non-sequitor, it did buy the Mayor time to quickly formulate what must have seemed at the time to be a better answer.
Under pressure, Mayor Guenther did an admirable job of deflecting the question by stating,“In the political season, anybody can say anything. And they can certainly exaggerate, or in some cases, even make some things up.” He went on to admonish Mr. Marcozzi for starting what the Mayor called “a political debate” during a City Council session. This evasive response was inaccurate and distorted Mr. Marcozzi’s question. The man was not asking the Mayor to respond to the usual vague claims made in virtually every political ad. It was not a case of, “Mr. Mayor, how do you respond to your opponent’s assertion that you are fiscally irresponsible?” This was a direct question regarding a specific accusation, that if true, could result in serious legal repercussions. A allegation has been made of improper, if not potentially criminal, conduct. It is in no way political for the taxpayers to inquire as to the truth of this matter. There is no “political debate” involved in a Yes or No question.
Mr. Marcozzi’s response to this tap-dancing was priceless. He resumed his place at the microphone and asked incredulously, “Are you saying that these accusations are POLITICAL?! I would say that if they’re true, they might even rise to criminal.” The Mayor’s choice of reply was sarcasm, as he condescendingly answered, “Nooo! You wouldn’t think that someone would write a political ad during election season!”
But the Mayor’s sarcasm was not enough to deter Mr. Marcozzi, who recognized the futility of seeking a straight answer and decided to play along. Regarding the Mayor’s assertion that people could basically lie in political ads, Mr. Marcozzi then inquired, “Is that what you do, in your ads?” Thrown off his game, the Mayor began to respond, “Everybody, in the political season…” but was cut off by Mr. Marcozzi’s interjection, “Everybody, including YOU?”
Visibly flustered at being cornered by his own words, Mayor Guenther went into the default response of, “I’m not going to have this debate with you!” After bitterly stating that he was sure, “This will make a very good YouTube clip”, the Mayor insisted that the only appropriate forum for city residents to raise such questions to City Council would be at the upcoming “Candidate’s Forum” being held by the Brigantine Taxpayer’s Association on October 25th. While this gathering will undoubtedly be informative for the island’s residents, the Mayor’s response raises a question: If not for residents to raise concerns and questions, just why does the City Council allow them an opportunity to speak at their meetings?
In demonstrating his reluctance to answer straightforward questions, or even engage a sincerely concerned taxpayer in a respectful, dignified manner, Mayor Guenther has provided more than just a “very good YouTube clip”. He has emphasized the unwillingness of many city officials to make even a cursory effort to avoid the appearance of impropriety. His non-answers to Mr. Marcozzi’s very legitimate questions reveals symptoms of the arrogance that comes with an uninterrupted 22 year reign, and a lack of concern for the importance of open dialogue between politicians and their constituents.
I congratulate Mr. Marcozzi for his brave attempt to clarify a very disturbing issue, his courage in standing up to the ridicule and resistance he received in return, as well as the poise he showed in not allowing the issue to be sidestepped. Since the video has been watched over 10,000 times, hopefully Mr. Marcozzi’s example will inspire other residents to assert their rights and demand real transparency in their government.
All interested residents should attend the Brigantine Taxpayer’s Association’s “Candidate’s Forum” at 10:00 AM on October 25th, at the 42nd St. Community Center.
It will be moderated by a neutral third party and, best of all, there will be no prepared questions. As the Mayor himself said, truthfully or not, this is the appropriate forum for whatever questions you’d like to ask. Nobody will shout you down. Nobody will make fun of you. Nobody will tell you your question is inappropriate. Ask your questions. Get your answers. Then vote your conscience.
At the very least, it should make for a very good YouTube clip.
Patrick Costello; Author of the Brigantine best seller: Greenhead Politics. The Story Brigantine Taxpayers Were Never Told.