Kathy Russell’s 12 years on the Brick Township Council came to a very quiet end at her last council meeting on New Year’s Eve.
There was one person in the audience. Only five of the seven members of the Township Council attended the 11-minute meeting.
Russell, the only Democrat on the council for the past several years, made a brief statement.
“I’d like to thank the residents of Brick Township, the employees of Brick Township, and my family for their support for 12 years,” Russell said.
“I want to thank Kathy for doing a wonderful job,” said Councilman Michael Thulen, who sat next to Russell on the dais for several years. “You did us good. Thank you for being here.”
Russell lost her bid for a fourth term in November, when mayoral candidate and former Councilman Gregory Kavanagh and the rest of the Democratic council candidates were defeated by the Republican slate led by Mayor Stephen C. Acropolis.
And in some ways, she’s grateful she lost.
“It would have been very difficult to do it another four years by myself,” she said. “In a small way, the public did me a favor.”
Russell said she often felt like a “party of one” at the council meetings.”
“Sitting by myself was probably the hardest,” she said. “And very few of my own party would come to the meetings.”
It’s a wonder she had the stomach to even show up for council meetings after the Scarpelli debacle.
Former Democratic Mayor Joseph C. Scarpelli abruptly resigned in December 2006, after a year of barely showing up in Town Hall. He pleaded guilty one month later to accepting bribes from an unnamed developer. The former four-term mayor spent 15 months in federal prison and was released in May.
After the November 2005 election, Russell was the only remaining member of what used to be called “The Scarpelli Team.”
And her GOP counterparts on the council never let her forget it. As the lone Democrat on the council, she was a handy target.
“Rude is a kind word,” Russell said. “Totally unnecessary. People actually told me they turned off the TV when it came to the rudeness. There is no need for that. I don’t think you should have to serve with people who are so condescending and can’t control their own behavior. Nobody should be subjected to that.”
Consider this exchange from a 2008 council meeting over the proposed purchase of the Ocean Ice Palace. Russell had called for a referendum on the matter and helped the group Stop Over- Spending gather signatures for a petition to put the purchase on the ballot.
“I don’t know if you paid for that B.A. (bachelor’s degree) from Georgian Court, but I would ask for a refund or have those professors thrown out,” Councilman Anthony Matthews said.
“It just appears that Councilwoman Russell cannot answer a direct question,” Councilwoman Ruthanne Scaturro said at another meeting.
Russell’s suggestion in late 2008 that she would work for free if other council members agreed to give up their salaries and health benefits didn’t go over too well either.
“I think Kathy is really just grandstanding a little bit,” Scaturro said at the council meeting. “She’s up for re-election next year. She’s been taking benefits for 11 years.”
Matthews agreed and termed Russell’s call for volunteerism “a little ridiculous.”
“In 11 years she hasn’t wanted to give up a single thing,” he said. “Now she wants to give up salaries and benefits to boot.”
But Russell, the daughter of a school superintendent and an English teacher, always kept her composure.
“I give credit to the way I was brought up,” she said. “I was brought up in the public eye. I knew how to conduct myself at all times.”
Russell was also shut out of serving on the major council committees over the past several years. The director of enrollment operations at Georgian Court College was relegated instead to the cable television committee and liaison to the library. It was a waste of her talent.
“I had a lot more to offer than they realized,” she said. “You are there to do the business of the community and the residents who live there. I was never an enemy. I was there for the same reasons they were. I was elected to represent the citizens of Brick Township. Very plain. Very simple.”
And it’s a shame she didn’t stand her ground and refuse to step down as the Democratic mayoral candidate in 2005.
Russell had announced she was running for mayor in spring 2005, after Scarpelli ruled out a run for a fourth term because of the corrosive political atmosphere in Brick.
“I don’t have the fire in my belly,” he said then.
But in August 2005, the ashes in the mayor’s midsection had apparently reignited. Scarpelli said then he had changed his mind and would run for a fourth term. Russell agreed to step down and run instead for another council term.
Had she not bowed to party pressure and insisted on keeping her seat, Brick might have been spared the embarrassment of having a mayor in the slammer.
“I think you have to have the support of your party to run, to win,” Russell said. “I’m a person who wants to run and win. He [Scarpelli] was still very popular. I was swayed, let’s put it that way. I wasn’t strong-armed, but based on polling, things like that, I made the right decision. I probably would have lost it anyway.”
Matthews and Scaturro were much more conciliatory at the New Year’s Eve council meeting.
Matthews thanked her for her 12 years of service.
“I got to spend six of them with you,” he said. “Best of luck to you and your family.”
“Good luck with whatever you choose to occupy your time with,” Scaturro said. “Congratulations on all you have done in the past. You’ve always been a lady. Good luck to you.”
So for now, Kathy Russell plans to spend more time with her husband, Jack, and her family. She’ll also have to get used to having Tuesday nights off.
But she hopes she served Brick Township residents well over the past 12 years.
“It was an experience in public service, for the betterment of the community,” Russell said. “I hope in some small way I made a difference.”