For decades, Anna Docimo has been ubiquitous in West Deptford - as Santa Claus at the annual toy drive she instituted in the 1990s, at the football games of powerhouse West Deptford High, at civic and government meetings and store ribbon-cuttings.
But next month, at the West Deptford Township Committee's largely ceremonial reorganization meeting, Docimo won't be at the main table.
After 22 years on the committee - the last eight as the first female mayor of the 21,000-resident township - Docimo is stepping down. It is time for a life change, she says.
"I've got a couple of grandchildren now, and my husband is retired. Everything just said to spend that extra time with them," said Docimo, 60, who plans to continue as director of senior services for Gloucester County.
"It is a lot of work, and I have loved it," she said. "But now is a really good time to leave."
In November, two months after Docimo - a Democrat - decided to resign, West Deptford elected two Republican committeemen, giving the GOP a 3-2 majority in local government for the first time since 1990.
Sam Cianfarini and Ray Chintall narrowly defeated two Democratic newcomers, who had replaced Democratic incumbents Hugh Garrison, who is moving, and former Deputy Mayor Len Daws, who ran as an independent after he was not renominated by his party.
Docimo was not up for reelection, nor were council members Sean Kilpatrick, a Republican, and Donna Szymborski, a Democrat. The Democratic committee will meet soon to select someone to finish Docimo's council term, which expires next fall.
Since the mayor is chosen by committee members from their own ranks, it is likely a Republican will get the job next month.
The GOP momentum did not influence her decision to retire from elected office, Docimo says, and Cianfarini takes her at her word.
"She is a neighbor of mine in West Deptford, and though we don't see eye to eye on everything, I respect her for her position as mayor and all the years she has given to the committee," said Cianfarini, a computer consultant.
"There are a lot of challenges here in West Deptford, and I think maybe Anna has decided it is better for new people to start taking them on," said Daws, a 17-year committee veteran.
Much of the upheaval in West Deptford centers on the RiverWinds recreation and housing complex.
In the 1990s, the Army Corps of Engineers sought hundreds of acres in the township, most of it former refinery land along the Delaware River, as a site to dump dredge spoils from a proposed deepening of the Delaware intended to improve shipping lanes.
Using municipal bonds, the township bought the land instead, and by 2001, it had proposals for housing, recreation and entertainment projects at the site. A community center, some housing, and most of the sports facilities were built. But with the slowed economy, a planned hotel and conference center never were constructed, and about a quarter of the land intended for housing remains dormant.
"Few people complain about the recreation facilities," Docimo said. "After all, did they really want dredging waste? But we just didn't see the downturn coming, so I understand that."
Cianfarini and others launched a website (WDTruth.com) that focused on the debt service on the 30-year bonds the township took out for the complex.
"It fired up people," said Bob Matlosz, who helped Cianfarini with the website. "We felt too many things had been done without looking at the long term, and now we were worried about the future."
Cianfarini, 51, has lived in West Deptford since the eighth grade, save for his time attending college at what is now Rowan University. He has been concerned with a lack of transparency in township budgets for a long time, he said, and vows that the Republican majority will inspect the budget closely.
"We will cut waste," Cianfarini said. "We want to initiate a zero-based budget and will allocate any surplus to pay down debt. There will be many areas, we feel, where we can take advantage of inefficiencies."
In 1989, before she entered government service, Docimo was working in real estate for its flexible schedule so she could keep an eye on her sons, Joe and Anthony. But at ages 11 and 14, the boys required less supervision.
"A few people came up to me and said, 'You know, you are so outgoing. Maybe you should run for township committee,' " Docimo said. "I had come to West Deptford from South Philadelphia, and it was such a good place to live. I just wanted to keep active."
Since the committee was primarily Republican, Docimo didn't think she had a great chance of winning, but she campaigned door-to-door anyway.
"Wouldn't you know it, I won by one vote," she said.
She is proud that the township still has one of the county's lowest tax rates, Docimo said, and she is confidant that RiverWinds eventually will thrive.
She defends what the township has accomplished there and the Union Fields recreation complex near the municipal building as the biggest achievements of her tenure. Her supporters agree.
"I remember as a kid that you had to pick stickers out of your shin guards when you went to the old football and baseball fields," said Hunter Kintzing, 33, a Democrat who lost in November.
"What Anna helped do at RiverWinds was make recreation accessible to hundreds of kids," he said. "My kids will be the fourth generation of our family to be here, and thanks to her hard work over 20 years, they will have it the best of all."
What is left undone, Docimo admitted, is RiverWinds' completion. "I told the incoming people that I will help as much as possible to get it completed," she said.
She preferred the noncontentious parts of her job, Docimo said, especially leading community events such as the toy drive, where she could help the township's children.
"I dress up as Santa. No guy. Me. I love it," she said.
Docimo doesn't want to go out complaining about people who disagreed with her.