Published: August 15, 2008
In the Region - The Shore
AFTER decades of being known as one of the wilder party towns on the Jersey Shore, Belmar has worked to clean up its image. Many of the beach houses once packed with summer renters are now attractive single-family homes. The number of bars near the boardwalk has dropped to one, from five, since 1985. And the borough police issued fewer noise summonses last year than in the two previous years.
Few have done more to bring about these changes than the borough’s mayor for 18 years, Kenneth E. Pringle. The mayor has made a point of cracking down on so-called “animal houses,” rentals where residents violate town ordinances, and has called attention to such behavior in a widely read newsletter, Belmar Summer Rental News, which was distributed in print and made available online through the town’s Web site, www.belmar.com.
The mayor used the newsletter to inform residents of code enforcement improvements and efforts by police to reduce nuisance complaints. But a brouhaha over his July 4 issue — in which he used language and anecdotes that offended some Staten Island residents, blondes, Italians and others — also demonstrated the pitfalls of sending words out on the blogosphere, where they keep drifting farther out, and are hard to recall, like nuclear fallout.
Some residents and local business owners now wonder whether the mayor, in one issue of his newsletter, undid much of the work he has accomplished to burnish Belmar’s image.
The five-page July 4 issue of the newsletter, written, as they all are, by Mr. Pringle, 50, who is also a lawyer, began by reporting that the Police Department had not issued a single noise summons to a summer rental all weekend.
He went on to report on another item in the town’s police blotter, about a Staten Island woman who got into a fight with another woman at a beachfront bar. “Journalistically speaking, ‘S.I. woman punches other woman’ is right up there with ‘Dog bites man,’ ” he wrote.
He then went on to use a word that many consider a slur against Italians and Italian-Americans, and added that their “call” is “bellowing, and frequently slurred, invariably starting with the sound ‘yo,’ followed all too often by some creative variation on an expletive.”
Mr. Pringle’s comments were widely reported and immediately drew criticism from Italian-American antidefamation groups and Staten Island politicians and residents, some of whom called for him to resign and for people to boycott Belmar.
“To offend people who bring that kind of money to your town doesn’t make sense to me,” said Larry Ambrosino, 60, executive director of SINY, a nonprofit group that works to promote Staten Island’s image. Although Belmar business owners have worked closely with Mr. Pringle to change the borough’s image, several said that they were furious about his remarks and feared that they would cost them money.
Rachel Rogers, 27, president of the Belmar Chamber of Commerce, said that a storekeeper had told her a longtime customer threatened never to return, and that another business owner had said that a man who identified himself as Italian-American called to cancel a rental reservation. Several stores on Main Street have posted signs reading, “Welcome Visitors: The mayor does not speak for us.”
But others were less quick to criticize the mayor.
Tom Volker, 67, owner of the Inn at the Shore, a bed-and-breakfast in town, said Mr. Pringle had done a tremendous job ridding Belmar of its unruly summer visitors. “If you lived next door to one of those places, you would know what I mean,” he said.
In the July 18 newsletter, which he said would be his last, Mr. Pringle apologized and said he “in no way intended to cast aspersions on Italian-Americans.”
He also wrote of a “generational divide” over the word he had used, saying it “is used every day throughout the Tri-State area by hordes of 20-somethings” and others, “none of whom associate it with any ethnic group.”
But he also acknowledged how it could anger older Italian-Americans.
He went on to apologize to people from Staten Island, blondes and other women, and summer renters his past newsletters might have offended.
“The purpose was never to make anyone feel bad or ashamed (well, maybe just a little),” he wrote. “Rather, my point was simply to hold up a mirror to misbehavior, so that our renters could see how their actions look to our residents, and hopefully behave better.”