This past week, South Jersey lost another long-term political leader and I lost a friend of 25 years with the passing of Buena Vista Township Mayor Chuck Chiarello (pictured, above left in a photo by Hal Brown). As I am away at a conference I will not be able to attend any services or share my condolences with his friends and family. I was able to call his wonderful wife and partner Cheryl before I left for my conference.
Before providing some personal remembrances, for the few who may not have met him, I will give a very brief summary of some of the highlights of Mayor Chiarello’s very significant accomplishments.
Chuck only lost two races in his life, is first election for township committee and a later election for Atlantic County Freeholder. But other than those losses he had the enviable record of winning every other election for township committee from 1991 onward. His colleagues on the Township Committee recognized Chuck’s vision and energy and chose him to be the Mayor for twenty-four years of his time on the committee.
Chuck was one of the founders of a group of elected officials with communities located in the Pinelands. He was elected to head both the League of Municipalities and the Conference of Mayors .
Chuck was also Atlantic County Chairman from 1998-2004 and I got to know him best in those years as I was the Democratic Chairman in nearby Cumberland County. We often worked together on campaigns and issues which impacted our counties.
Chuck was an old-fashioned politician who believed in grass roots politics, knew nearly all his constituents by their first names and quickly followed up on the requests or complaints of his residents.
Although Chuck inspired deep and long-lasting loyalty from the overwhelming majority of those with whom he served , unfortunately, on one or two occasions, the very people he helped elect to Township Committee turned on him, always to their ultimate regret.
In one instance he just primaried his opponents off of the committee but in another which I was involved in, Chuck dug in and beat them; first at township committee meetings, then at the ballot box and finally in court. This instance provided an example on how Chuck used his tremendous political skills and acumen and unyielding tenacity to advance worthy policy, withstand enormous personal pressure and attacks and ultimately have some fun when prevailing.
For many years, Chuck had a vision and plan to bring an area of the township called Richland Village located on Route 40 back to life. Richland Village is exactly what it sounds like, a few blocks of Norman Rockwellian like establishments, some of which had seen better times. Thanks to Chuck’s leadership and with the support of the Township Committee, Richland Village once again contained not only a general store and post office which survived the decline but also a deli/restaurant, comic book and toy store, train station and museum (which includes rides on vintage trains with Santa each Christmas a la “the Polar Express”) and a corner bar with the best chicken wings in south jersey. These entities flourished because Chuck had the vision to have the township purchase key parcels which would be the cornerstones for the projects.
The Township funded the acquisition of the properties which comprised Richland Village through a creative use of economic development funds from various state, county and local resources. Specifically $3.1 million of grants, loans and bonds were used to bring the Richland Village project from a concept to reality. In reality these funds came as a result of the well-known Chiarello persistence. In each instance, the businesses and other entities relied upon the inducements and encouragement of the Township Committee to locate, expand or improve existing establishments in Richland Village.
As with all projects, Richland Village was not always completely successful and it was especially hurt by the Great Recession. The project previously enjoyed nearly unanimous support of the Township Committee until after the June Democratic primary of 2013
Although the Township Committee was 5-0 Democrat; Chuck and his good and loyal running mate Teresa Kelly were under assault by the remaining three township committee members; two of whom had just lost the June primary to a Chiarello supported ticket. Those who lost the primary, in what appeared to be an act of malice and revenge resulting from their loss pursued a course of action to shut the lights out on Richland Village by selling the township owned properties. When fighting to save Richland Village, Chuck and Teresa not only battled the three renegade committee members but also a former county chairman who was a very able township Solicitor. The three renegades and their solicitor were intent on selling the township property before the two new pro-Chiarello and pro-Richland Village Committeemen could be sworn in on January of 2014. Had they been successful, they would have stifled the growth of the project and discouraged any new investment. As Mayro Chiarello said at the time, if the Township did not demonstrate faith in the project, how could they expect the private sector to have any.
Chuck called me, told me he had no money but might be able to persuade the Richland Villages businesses to fund the basic costs of litigation. Chuck wanted me to go to court on an Order to Show Cause to stop the sale of the township properties and thereby keep Richland Village alive. The timing of the proposed sale, between Thanksgiving and Christmas was critical because if the township properties were sold to a developer there would be no Santa train ride and the entire Village with its economic development benefits would be nothing more than a fond memory and a failed experiment.
Anyone who knew Chuck will smile when I note that I had to say “yes”, because no one could turn down Chuck Chiarello when he was focused to achieve his goal. Although a long time Mayor , former County Chairman and accomplished politician, anytime Chuck asked for your help, the request would be grounded on the merits. This request like all others from Chuck was not heavy handed. He loved his Township, he loved the Richland Village and guess what, just from his enthusiasm I loved it also and I represented the Richland Village litigants in court.
For months after the primary, the Township Committee meetings were battlegrounds between the pro and anti-Village people. Those who wanted to keep it touted its proven economic development and those who wanted to sell the township owned property claimed they were being fiscally responsible. Not unlike other small towns, the Township Committee meetings were well attended and full of loud and passionate advocates on both sides. Chuck and Teresa extolled the merits from the dais while I represented the Richland Village businesses and other entities from the audience. Both Chuck and I had physical threats made against us at the meetings. The passions ran that high on this issue.
The two losing Committee members and the one who was still with them on the Committee did their very best to sell the properties and kill the Village during their lame duck terms. Working with their Solicitor they had numerous quick meetings; without proper notice and took actions which were clearly ultra vires (outside the law). I had to go back to court numerous times and with Chuck and Teresa’s help we saved Richland Village and Santa got his Christmas Train. Although I received the credit for the win in court, most of the ground work of getting witnesses and providing documentation for the trial was done by Chuck.
I am not sure if it was his idea or mine; but we both reveled in the press conference declaring victory with Santa Claus at our side.
Richland Village still exists, as does the general store, the deli and train museum and of course the Santa train rides. The corner bar with the wings has been sold and turned into a find dining establishment with a significant investment by its new owners. Richland Village’s very existence; five years after the litigation, validates Chuck’s vision.
Later this month, someday before Christmas, I will take the Santa train with my 2 and 1/ 2year old grandson and fondly remember with a tear in my eye my friend, Mayor Chuck Chiarello. We have lost a Mayor and friend but Got has gotten an organizer, political mind and public official of the first order. RIP Chuck.
Lou Magazzu was a Freeholder in Cumberland County NJ from 1998-2011 and the longest serving Freeholder in that county in the last 50 years. He also served as Freeholder Director as well as County Democratic Chairman. He served on the Board of Directors of the National Association of Counties, was the Chairman of the National Democratic County Officials as well as President of the New Jersey Association of Counties. He can be reached at Lmagazzu@aol.com.