North Wildwood officials, under fire for ending a longtime management agreement with the Friends of Hereford Inlet Lighthouse and locking the group out of the site, released documents Wednesday that they said would explain why they took that controversial step.

"Ultimately, we were afraid the lighthouse would be looted," Mayor Patrick Rosenello said after the documents were posted on the city website. A prime target of the mayor's concern, longtime lighthouse manager Steve Murray, said Rosenello was indulging in character assassination.

Steve Murray, volunteer keeper of the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, inside the historic structure in North Wildwood.
Gregg Kohl
Steve Murray, volunteer keeper of the Hereford Inlet Lighthouse, inside the historic structure in North Wildwood.

Earlier this week, Rosenello announced that Murray and the friends group were being locked out. The mayor said officials wanted to secure artifacts and other property inside the lighthouse until a full inventory  could be made by a professional curator. That came after Murray said in public statements that he intended to remove antiquities that he said belonged to him and others who had lent them to the nonprofit friends group.

Rosenello said Wednesday that the curator would begin work Monday. He did not dispute that some of the items inside the lighthouse may belong to Murray and others, but said that before anything is removed a full accounting must be made.

The mayor acknowledged he has taken heat from residents and other lighthouse aficionados who support Murray. He said he decided to release the documentation to help the public decide whether the city takeover is best for the lighthouse. Murray has sent letters to 600 members of the friends group, and others mounted a social media campaign to try to get Rosenello to change his mind about cutting ties with the group.

"There's no doubt in my mind that we did the right thing," Rosenello said.

Murray said members of the public and the "lighthouse community" were standing behind him because for more than 30 years he has been focused on preserving the historic beacon.

"The mayor has made so many character assassinations against me throughout this entire thing, but anyone who knows me knows that what he is saying just isn't true," Murray said. He said he and the friends group plan to retain an attorney.

Rosenello said he and other city officials entered the lighthouse on Tuesday following the lockout Monday afternoon, and found on Murray's desk a listing of all the items inside the historic site and indications of how Murray planned to dispose of them. Most notable in the list, Rosenello said, was a city tax map from 1900 that Murray indicated he owned. Rosenello disputed Murray's claim.

"That map hung for years in city hall and is a historic document which belongs to the city," Rosenello said. "After seeing that, there was no doubt we needed to lock down the premises until a true inventory could be made."

Murray, however, said the map and numerous other items were lent by him and other volunteers. Among the items, he said, are his grandmother's dining room table and an antique train set he played with as a child.  He said he and the friends group had planned to remove the items after a curator examined the contents of the lighthouse and before the management agreement with the city expired in January.

The relationship between the parties became contentious in October when the city said it would not renew its management agreement with the friends group under the terms of the current contract, which allows the volunteers to decide nearly everything concerning the historical site, from day-to-day operations to grant-writing for maintenance and repairs.

Murray said a new agreement offered by the city was too onerous, pulling back almost all control of the property — down to what gets planted in the gardens and what the brochures tell visitors. The friends group rejected the notion of being allowed only to give tours and run the gift shop.

"It just gave up too much control of the lighthouse to people who have no idea how to run the lighthouse," Murray said.

The circa 1874 lighthouse looks more like a Victorian house tucked into a residential neighborhood than it does a beacon for maritime navigation. Designed by Library of Congress architect Paul J. Pels, the 57-foot-tall lighthouse is the only one of its kind on the East Coast. Three of five similar ones built on the West Coast remain.

The documents released on Wednesday date back to August 2016, when Murray sent what city officials termed a "threatening letter" to a neighbor of the landmark. The letter told the unnamed neighbor to refrain from cutting trees and other plants belonging to the lighthouse. The letter said it appeared such trimming had occurred previously, and served notice that the friends group would take legal action to stop such activity.

Rosenello, who lives about six houses from the alleged tree-trimming neighbor, said lapses of communication between Murray and the city and Murray's alleged failure to "close out" a state Department of Transportation grant, which cost the city about $17,000 in funding, were among factors that prompted the change in agreement.

The lighthouse — a state and national historic landmark — is owned by the state parks department and leased to the city, which in turn has turned over management to the friends group. Murray has managed the property without pay since retiring from the city as its parks superintendent in December 2010.

The oceanfront gardens he helped plant at the lighthouse have won horticultural awards and are one reason the site draws 40,000 visitors a year.