first_imgBy Donald WittkowskiSome affectionately call him by his nicknames, Len or Lenny. Others refer to him by his formal titles, mayor or freeholder.Since 1993, Leonard Desiderio has been mayor of Sea Isle City. In 2002, he joined the board of the Cape May County Freeholders.He wants to keep that distinction as a dual officeholder, announcing in an interview Saturday that he is seeking re-election as freeholder this year. His mayoral term in Sea Isle expires in 2019.As a dual officeholder, the 60-year-old Desiderio said he brings a unique perspective that allows him to view things at the local level as a small-town mayor, while also seeing the bigger picture as a county freeholder.“You can’t pay for the experience I have,” he said. “When I’m sitting with the freeholders, as one of five, I’m listening to what the county is doing and at the same time, I’m thinking as a municipal official. I’m someone who knows if something will be a burden or a help for the municipalities.”Legislation signed by then-Gov. Jon S. Corzine in 2007 prohibited politicians from holding two elected offices simultaneously in New Jersey, but it included a “grandfather clause” exempting anyone already in those positions before the law took effect. Desiderio was grandfathered in as mayor and freeholder.Desiderio, a Republican, said he is the only mayor-freeholder in South Jersey and one of just a few dual officeholders in the entire state.Before announcing his intention Saturday to seek re-election as freeholder, there had been speculation that Desiderio might run for Congress to replace Republican U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, who is retiring when his term expires this year. However, Desiderio stressed that he has no interest in seeking the congressional seat.“I’m flattered and honored, but I’m not running,” he said in response to speculation that he might campaign for Congress.Desiderio was first appointed to the freeholder board in 2002 to fill an unexpired term, then won election to a full three-year term in 2003. He followed up with re-election wins in 2006, 2009, 2012 and 2015.Major issues that he intends to focus on during his re-election campaign this year include public safety, the county’s opioid crisis and the antiquated toll bridges operated by the Cape May County Bridge Commission.Desiderio, at a press conference last October, discussed ways for the community to fight the county’s opioid crisis.His freeholder duties include overseeing the county’s public safety departments and acting as the board’s liaison with law enforcement. He said keeping the county’s residents and visitors safe is paramount.“Public safety is very, very important. The safety of our residents and visitors is my utmost concern,” he said.Desiderio, both as mayor and freeholder, has been concentrating on the county’s opioid epidemic. Through early December, there were 195 overdoses and 32 drug deaths in 2017 in Cape May County. In 2016, there were 121 overdoses and 14 drug deaths.The Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office has blamed the availability of the opioid fentanyl – which is stronger than heroin – for the spike in drug overdoses.Desiderio, who has organized community workshops in Sea Isle to help fight the opioid crisis, believes that simply throwing drug abusers in jail is not the answer. He is an advocate of the county’s Drug Court, which includes programs to help addicts get treatment and stay out of trouble.“We can’t jail our way out of the problem,” he said. “If we put them in jail, they’re out on bail in 48 hours and they’re on the street looking for their next fix. When they’re in jail, they also lose the jobs they have.”As freeholder, Desiderio noted he has been reaching out to County Prosecutor Jeffrey Sutherland, County Sheriff Bob Nolan, local police chiefs, churches, community groups and others to develop a strategy to combat the opioid epidemic.“It breaks my heart to see what this epidemic is doing,” he said. “It’s not only young people, but also people in their 50s and 60s who are battling addiction.”Fixing or replacing the county’s old bridges, such as the Townsends Inlet Bridge linking Sea Isle and Avalon, is one of Desiderio’s top priorities.Though far less serious than the opioid crisis, another problem Desiderio wants to fix is the deteriorated condition of the toll bridges that connect the seashore communities of Cape May County, including Sea Isle.One of those spans, the Townsends Inlet Bridge linking Sea Isle and Avalon, is nearly 80 years old and has been plagued by a series of mechanical and structural shutdowns in recent years.Desiderio said the county is developing a plan to renovate or replace four older bridges that are part of the Cape May County Bridge Commission’s network. The commission’s fifth bridge, the Ocean City-Longport bridge, is a modern structure. The county’s bridge plan is expected to be publicly unveiled this spring.“It’s got to be done,” Desiderio said of the need to overhaul the old bridges. “It will be a focus of the entire freeholder board. I think the public will be happy. We’re going to start making major improvements to the bridges.”Known as a problem-solver, Desiderio remains proud of the work he did years ago on the freeholder board to help transform the county’s animal shelter in Cape May Court House into a “no-kill” facility.Animal-rights advocates made a bumper sticker in his honor that says “neuter is cuter.” He also has a life-size sign that whimsically depicts him holding a dog and a cat under the words, “Lenny says neuter is cuter.”Joined by his daughter, Carmela, Desiderio shows off a sign that honored his efforts to make the county’s animal shelter a “no-kill” facility.Desiderio said the animal shelter is an example of how his combined skills as a mayor and a freeholder benefited both the county and local towns.He explained that he brokered a funding agreement that resulted in the county initially kicking in money to help the 15 municipalities that use the animal shelter. Now, municipalities provide the main financial support for the shelter based on their usage.“This is where my advantage as mayor came in. I sat down with 15 mayors and came up with a plan,” Desiderio said.Desiderio also touted his ability to work with both Republicans and Democrats, as well as unaffiliated voters, to craft agreements benefiting the county and Sea Isle City.“As a mayor and as a freeholder from Cape May County, I don’t look to see if they’re ‘Rs’ or ‘Ds’ or undeclared voters if they call me for help,” he said. “I’m here to help people. That’s one thing I’ve never forgotten.” Cape May County Freeholder Leonard Desiderio, who is also mayor of Sea Isle City, is running again for freeholder.last_img