Thus far in 2015, 15 Brick residents have died of drug overdoses, most of them the local victims of the Shore area’s multi-year heroin epidemic. How to stem the tide of death, and the misery of addiction that affects not only the addicts, but their family members, friends and neighbors, is an issue that has always – for better or worse – contained a political component. In Brick, it has become a central issue in the race for township council.
The heroin epidemic as a campaign issue is a central theme of the Republican ticket’s quest to take back the majority of the seats on the council for the first time since 2013. Their candidates have said more can be done to tackle heroin’s grip on the township and put forth a six-point plan to do so. But the incumbent Democrats on council say they are the ones who restored a major anti-drug group in town after it was dissolved under GOP leadership, increased the number of police officers from 125 to 132 and brought back the police department’s Selective Enforcement Team, an elite group of officers who conduct drug distribution investigations.
“We are working very closely with the police department to make sure they have the resources they need on the enforcement end,” said Councilwoman Andrea Zapcic, one of the Democratic incumbents. “We don’t want to make it a political issue. It’s a human tragedy that people are dealing with in their families.”
The Republican candidates say not enough is being done by the current group of elected officials.
“I went to a person’s house [while campaigning] and he said he was robbed three times in the past year,” said Michael Conti, a Board of Education member who is running for his first term on council as a Republican. “There was a knife fight on his property. This is a full-blown crisis.”
What’s Being Done?
Democrats first took control of the township council Jan. 1 2013, and the mayor’s office one year later. Zapcic and Mayor John Ducey, in interviews with Shorebeat, spoke of numerous accomplishments in that period of time, especially restoring the SET team and B-Mac, short for the Brick Municipal Alliance Committee, an organization that receives grant funding to put together anti-drug programs in town. Over the past year since it returned, the organization has hosted numerous presentations and programs for both young people and parents, and has also focused on mentoring programs, including setting up outreach in troubled areas of town, such as the Maple Leaf Park condominium complex.
B-Mac is Brick’s official municipal alliance committee, the local iteration of a concept that is governed by both state laws and local ordinances. By adhering to the state’s regulations on how the group should be organized, Brick qualifies for tens of thousands of dollars in grant funding each year and the opportunity to fund-raise in the community.
B-Mac was disbanded under a previous Republican mayor and township council after Democrats say the group diverted funds raised for the organization to Summerfest by claiming B-Mac as a sponsor of the summer concert series.
“That’s how B-Mac died,” said Zapcic. “The town withdrew from the grant program, turned its back on $40,000 to $50,000 per year of grant money, and that was it.”
It was restored last year.
Conti said the township should go beyond the B-Mac organization and form a second group which would be known as the Drug-Free Brick Advisory Commission. The commission would work to “enhance communications and responsiveness between our community, government and police.”
The commission, Conti said, would bring together individuals from more sectors of the community to develop a more cohesive plan.
“They don’t know how to deal with it, they don’t have a plan,” Conti said of his opponents.
Zapcic said the township has worked to develop initiatives that would combine different aspects of the community, including the decision to add another DARE officer to the school district despite objections from the Board of Education.
“The mayor asked if they would help us cover 50 percent of the cost of the DARE officer, and the answer we got from their finance committee, which Mr. Conti sits on, was ‘no thanks, we’ll do without with the program if we have to finance it,'” said Zapcic.
Both Conti and Zapcic praised efforts in the school system to combat the problem, especially the Lead and Seed program, a student-led initiative that was started in the middle schools last year and has since been expanded into the high schools.
“You can do a lot with education,” said Conti. “There are macro and foundational issues that we really have to deal with, and that’s what we’re willing to deal with.”
The Republicans’ six-point plan includes starting the commission, adding more officers to the SET team, expanding partnerships with the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, improving access to recovery and counseling programs, and continuing to fund DARE and Lead and Seed. Their plan includes one additional point: establishing police substations in areas of town where drug activity is rampant.
“If you have an area where you know you’re getting your calls, let’s have a substation there,” said Conti.
It’s a concept that is being tried in some other local communities. Toms River has a police substation in the troubled Hope’s Crossing community and Barnegat Township recently purchased a unit in the equally-troubled Settlers Landing community that it is turning into a substation that will be manned 24 hours a day.
Zapcic said officials have looked into the substation concept and have held informal discussions with Police Chief Nils R. Bergquist on it, but have considered a different approach. Under consideration has been a township resource trailer in the Maple Leaf Park community that would combine policing with more community-minded activities and resources.
“We did look at the possibility of partnering with other agencies to get some resources into there,” said Zapcic.
Zapcic recalled the introduction of the use of Narcan in New Jersey. Gov. Chris Christie came to the Herbertsville fire house in Brick to kick off the program under which police officers and other first responders would be armed with kits containing Narcan, also known as Naloxone, a drug which reverses the effects of an opiate overdose and helps restart a victim’s breathing.
“Everyone there said, ‘we’re not going to arrest our way out of this problem,'” said Zapcic.
Zapcic said continuing to expand B-Mac – which includes former GOP council members Mike Thulen and Mary Lou Powner – will bring more resources to the community. The alliance committee is now working to expand access to treatment counselors and will soon host a program for parents of student athletes, a group at a high risk of addiction since youngsters are playing more sports than ever before and suffering more chronic injuries which require prescription pain medications.
Conti took issue with Mayor John Ducey’s comment in a recent Asbury Park Press story on the campaign in which he said the Republicans were “creating issues” such as the heroin epidemic to bolster their election chances.
“How the mayor can say we’re creating an issue here is unconscionable,” said Conti.
For Ducey’s part, he clarified his point, saying the Republicans “have taken our platform and are saying it’s theirs.”
The Republican candidates, in a joint statement to the press, accused Democrats of “ignoring” the drug issue in town.
“Tell the loved ones of the fifteen Brick residents who have died this year from heroin and opiate abuse that we’re ‘creating issues,'” the statement said.
Zapcic said she wondered how big the problem progressed after B-Mac and the SET team were eliminated.
“I don’t know how big the size of the hole would have been otherwise, but we had two things that were gone under the Republicans’ watch, and now here we are trying to build on these things and address the problem,” she said.
Conti is running alongside Frank Pannucci, Jr., Martin Ebert and Charles Bacon for council. Zapcic is running with Councilman Jim Fozman, Arthur Halloran and Lisa Crate. Republicans would have to take all four available seats to win a majority on the governing body. Incumbent Councilman Bob Moore, formerly a Democrat, is running as an independent candidate.