A heated exchanged between Howell Mayor William Gotto and a 19 year old Township resident, Chris Cohen, that ended with both parties apologizing, shaking hands and expressing their respect for one another has ignited a social media outrage now that a video of part of their encounter has been posted on facebook and YouTube, more than a month after the incident occurred.
On October 14, there was a petition drive at the Howell library to collect signatures of residents opposed to a proposed affordable housing development at West Farms on Route 9. Grotto and Deputy Mayor Robert Nicastro went to the gathering to answer questions about the proposed development.
The questions were heated and pointed when Cohen says he asked the mayor, “Whose pockets were being lined here?”
Gotto says he heard the question as an accusation of personal corruption. He lost his composure, as can be seen on the video:
“My response was unacceptable,” Gotto said in a phone interview with MMM this morning, “The accusations toward elected officials really got to me personally. It crossed a line. The accusation was unacceptable. My response was also unacceptable.”
Gotto said the video does not show that he and Cohen left to room together, spoke calmly and apologized to each other.
Cohen verified the mayor’s account of the conversation in a phone interview with MMM and in a facebook posting this afternoon. Cohen said that he and Gotto spoke twice; once immediately after the outburst and again at the end of the petition drive. During the second conversation, Cohen said, he and Gotto expressed how their opinions of each other changed over the course of the evening and how they had gained a mutual respect. “I have no animosity towards toward the mayor,” Cohen said.
Here is Cohen’s post on facebook:
Chris Cohen Hi everyone. Im the young man in the video, and I want to clear the situation up. First of all, im not 15, or even 16 as some people have commented. Im infact 19, going on 20 in a little more then a month. What happened prior to the video being taken was, as many know, a petition meeting about the proposed low income housing on rt.9. I was in attendance with my mother, and younger sister. During the meeting, the mayor was being rude to those who asked him questions about the project, and calling them ignorant, or anti semantic every time someone asked a question he didnt like. In my mind, he was defending this very hard, for what seemed like he had no reason to, and the only thing that came to mind was “Whos pockets were being lined here?”. A thought that im sure others had as well. So when the time came, I asked him just that. Not “Whos lineing HIS pockets?” but “Whos pockets were being lined?” and this video is a result of that question. Was it appropriate? Looking back it certainly wasnt. After everything calmed down abit, I apologized, and shook the Mayors hand infront of everyone. I also pulled him aside, and explained that what I said wasnt an attack at him, but a general question because its what he makes people think is going on by the way he acts, and lets be real, its politics & bribes are a very common thing in order for people to get things done.
So no, Im not a 15 year old kid running his mouth, nor was I being coached to say anything by anyone. I had my own question, and I asked it. If anyone has any questions please message me on Facebook, thank you.
A 2014 graduate of Freehold Township High School, Cohen said that he has lived in Howell most of his life and that his family has been part of the community for over 200 years. He is a distant relative of Raymond Roe, for whom the Department of Public Works building is named after. Cohen works in retail at the Freehold Raceway Mall and is enrolling at Brookdale Community College in January. He said he intends to have a career as a history teacher.
Gotto is in the third year of a four year term as the Township’s mayor. A 50 year old fire protection engineer who works in the private sector, Gotto, his wife and daughter in college, have lived in Howell since 1996. He was appointed to the Council in 2009 to fill an unexpired term. He was elected to complete that term in 2009 and to his own full term in 2010 when he served as deputy mayor. He was elected mayor in 2012.
Gotto said that he was grateful to Cohen for coming forward.
The mayor has yet to announce whether or not he will stand for re-election in 2016. The part time job pays $7,500 per year. Gotto said he spends 20-30 per week on Township business.
Caitlin Brown contributed to this story.