By Anne Geggis

The Ocean Ridge Town Commission has five seats, but January’s meeting brought to 10 the number of commissioners who have sat on the dais in the past year.

Ainar Aijala Jr. and David Hutchins were sworn into office to replace Commissioners Philip Besler and Ken Kaleel, who turned in their resignations effective Dec. 30.

Kaleel said he was resigning rather than comply with a new state law that requires those serving on local elected commissions and councils to file a detailed disclosure of personal assets, effective Jan. 1. Besler was hanging it up for personal reasons, he said.

Aijala and Hutchins swore to faithfully execute all the duties of town commissioner to applause from the crowd at the Jan. 8 meeting. Their appointments are good only until the March 19 election, when voters will decide who fills three commission openings — including their seats — that are on the ballot. Both Aijala and Hutchins have qualified to run in that election.

Hutchins, a town resident since 1990, said he hopes to put his eight years of experience serving on the Planning and Zoning Commission to work in this new role. He is optimistic about the town’s direction but sees some areas that could use improvement.

“Repairing and replacing existing, worn infrastructure is a priority always, but living within our means has to be part of the equation,” he texted about why he stepped forward to serve.

Aijala, who hails from Michigan, said serving on an elected board fulfills a longtime interest in public service that he couldn’t pursue beyond nonprofit roles because of his position at Deloitte, the largest professional services firm in the world. There, he was CEO of its global consulting practice.

The town is on the right track, and he intends to use his professional experience in strategic planning to help it operate even more efficiently, he said after he was sworn in.

“Ocean Ridge is a very special place,” he said.

The past year has been rife with the town’s leaders coming and going, however.

The two exiting commissioners, Besler and Kaleel, were appointed to replace two other commissioners who resigned in 2023, Martin Wiescholek and Kristine de Haseth. In addition to that, Commissioner Carolyn Cassidy became a new face on the dais last April, after finishing ahead of then-Mayor Susan Hurlburt, who came in last in a three-way race for two commission seats.

Wiescholek, the other winner in the March 2023 election, resigned at the same April meeting at which he was sworn in for a second, three-year term. His resignation came minutes after the commissioners agreed in a split vote to hire Town Manager Lynne Ladner on a full-time basis. Two hours later, at the same meeting, de Haseth resigned, saying she wanted to spend more time with her family.

So, Mayor Geoff Pugh and Vice Mayor Steve Coz are the only holdovers from before the last election.

Aijala and Hutchins were selected for commission appointments out of eight applicants.

The town’s charter calls for vacancies to be filled at the next election instead of having an appointee fill out the remainder of an unexpired term — something that’s done in other communities such as Manalapan and Gulf Stream. The seat originally held by de Haseth was up for election this year anyway, but the seat once held by Wiescholek wasn’t supposed to be up for election for another two years.

Aijala, Hutchins, Pugh and political newcomer Nick Arsali will compete for a pair of three-year terms on the commission and another two-year term.

Pugh acknowledged at the Jan. 8 meeting that he might lose as the commission agreed on a workshop date for training on the new system for town business on April 8 — after the next election.

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