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October 24, 2018

Citing 'undue stress' and health concerns, Bridgeport's council president resigns

It's the latest twist in an ongoing saga involving death threats, racist comments and the direction of the police department

Controversies Politics
Bridgeport Brian Hickey/PhillyVoice

Bridgeport Borough Council President John Pizza, standing, and Mayor Mark Barbee share a few words after yet another heated meeting in September 2018.

Prior to Tuesday night’s Bridgeport Borough Council meeting, the president of that seven-person body – John Pizza – spoke about ongoing controversies that drew residents’ ire and unexpected attention from outside of the tiny Montgomery County town.

Specifically, he addressed how stories about Mayor Mark Barbee being subject to death threats and racist comments ran counter to the Bridgeport he’s known since birth.

“I grew up in this town, and I know my town is not racist or biased. We all got along, played together. Everyone was treated the same,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “You can pick one or two people out of any town, in any crowd (who would make racist comments), but it’s not the whole town.

“I’ve been on council for a long time, and I think the reason I keep getting re-elected is that I’ve never lied to the people, and I’ve done everything I could for this town.”

What he didn’t say Tuesday, however, is that he was about to retire from his post, which is exactly what the 74-year-old did just after the 7:30 p.m. meeting started. During a Wednesday morning interview with PhillyVoice, as he did at the meeting, he cited health concerns.

“I had to resign. I didn’t want to leave, but I was under pressure from my doctors and family,” said Pizza, who’s served on council for 16 years. “My health’s deteriorated rapidly in the past few months and I’m going to be 75 in March. They didn’t want me facing any undue stress, which is what’s happened with the things that are going on with our mayor.”

He said he made the final decision with his two granddaughters particularly in mind, along with a comfort level with those on council today.

“I’m happy with the council members we have, and the future looks bright with the people who are currently sitting there,” he said. “If I wasn’t satisfied, I would’ve stayed.”

"I have no doubt he will remain active and involved in the community.” – Bridgeport Councilman Kyle Shenk

One of those new faces on council – the one who Pizza nominated to replace him as president – lauded Pizza’s time in office, wished him "the absolute best" and said it was a pleasure to serve alongside him.

“The residents of Bridgeport are fortunate to have had a council president who so deeply loves this community and all who live and work here,” said Council Member At-Large Kyle Shenk. “The depth of institutional knowledge and personal relationships that he developed over the years have been crucial to the momentum of the Borough's revitalization.

“I know that due to health issues, Mr. Pizza had been considering retirement for some time, but wanted to stay on board until council had a firm direction forward for the police department. I'm honored that he nominated me to replace him as council president, and I look forward to continuing to work with Mr. Pizza as I have no doubt he will remain active and involved in the community.”


With Pizza’s retirement, three members of council have now left their positions in recent months.

In September, Council formally accepted the resignation of William “Bill” Lawless, who’d been absent from previous meetings after a loud dust-up with Barbee. That came a month after his son, Bill Lawless, did the same. Those two, along with Pizza, often opposed Barbee’s initiatives.

When the 29-year-old Barbee was elected to the top spot last November and sworn in two months later, he became the tiny blue-collar borough’s first openly gay African-American mayor. Over the course of the next 10 months, he would be subjected to death threats, profane tirades at public meetings and a slew of racially charged comments.

Barbee said he thought that was among the issues that played a role in Pizza’s retirement.

“I don’t believe it’s any coincidence that Bridgeport’s third member of borough council is stepping down following the publicity describing the events that have taken place this year. I see it as testament to the failed leadership of the administration,” he said. “The unwarranted adversity that I have endured this year went unchecked and unchallenged."

He called on Bridgeport residents "to continue to hold one another accountable for how we are perceived and, most importantly, hold our representatives accountable for how we are perceived."

"The campaign to blame me for the picture of Bridgeport that's being painted is the problem," he said. "Failure to condemn the bigotry inspired comments and actions of those in and out of borough hall is the issue. This is a culture that will continue to fester until we as community recognize that this is the issue and stand together to fight against it.”

“I call this mass exodus, draining the swamp,” the mayor added.