Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Late Stafford Mayor's Wife Settles Debt, Moves On

By Tom Mongelli

The baggage that the late Wesley Bell left after his untimely death in 2008 is gone. Now, says Ann Bell, his legacy in Stafford Township can be of value to future community leaders.

Bell, a Philadelphia native, was three when his family moved to Ship Bottom in 194. He became a Stafford elected official in 1969. He was mayor in 1983 when a young Carl Block led a recall effort and assumed the seat for the next 25 years. But the defeat didn't prevent him from remaining an influence in the township. In the ensuing years, he campaigned to represent the area as a state Senator, U.S. Senator and governor, while maintaining his outdoor advertising business.

The billboards in Ocean, Atlantic and Burlington Counties led to run-ins with the New Jersey Departments of Transportation, Environmental Protection and Taxation, leading to about $1.2 million in judgments and liens. Bell died in 2008 at age 71, a victim of injuries from a fall off one of the billboards his company owned.

Ann Bell says her settlement discussions with state officials over the past several months were cordial and amicable. She was struck, she says, by the impact her husband left in Trenton's corridors of power.

"Even though he was a thorn in their side many times," Ann says, "they had nothing but nice things to say about Wesley's intelligence, his dedication, and his belief in the legal system."

Proceeds from the sale of the company have satisfied the assessments, something
Ann calls a "tremendous relief."

"Now," she says, "I can distribute Wesley's ashes where they need to go, appropriately."

Where will that be. At this point, Ann hasn't decided. But she says that Wesley Bell was a lifelong advocate of the ocean and an avid sailor.

Bell is also credited as an inventor of salvage equipment for waterborne vessels beyond the depth of divers.

But Ann says that Bell's commitment to open government - itself the object of an 1988 New Jersey Supreme Court decision - is the lesson he leaves for municipal leaders yet to be elected. She says she took no comfort in the May defeat of Block - the man who unseated her husband - by new mayor John McMenamin. She considers that their approaches may differ, but they all have Stafford's best interests at heart.

"They need to be applauded for stepping up to the plate," Ann says. "How many of these complainers ever, ever get up off their fat butts and do something for the community?"

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