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Less Government Power, Fewer Conflicts Of Interest

Perhaps Belmar Democratic Party Chairman Luis Pulido spoke too soon when he released this statement reported in The Coast Star:

“Mr. Seebeck’s claims about campaign donations in the last election sound serious, but they are nonsense.  Had Mr. Seebeck fully understood the ordinance he quoted, he would have known that his allegations of any campaign contributions being illegal are unfounded.”

At the January 19 council meeting Mike Seebeck asserted that the Democratic campaign accepted a $1000 contribution from the Barclay and an in-kind contribution for providing the hall for Democratic events.  He stated that by accepting those donations and then voting on taxi licenses at the January 2 reorganization meeting, the Democrats violated “their own” campaign finance law.  He also pointed out that the upcoming vote on parking permits would also be invalid. 

Mayor Matt Doherty denies receiving the $1000 donation but agreed that the Barclay provided services for the January 2 reorganization meeting/party.  Actually I thought the in-kind contribution Mr. Seebeck was referring to was the October 8 Democratic fundraiser held at the Barclay.  (I’ll clarify that when I find out.)  The mayor has also correctly pointed out that the law in question was enacted in 2005, before any of our current Democrats were in office.  (It was enacted by other Democrats.)  He now has decided that it is a bad law and is preparing to try to change it.

Mr. Seebeck may have gotten a few details wrong but he does understand the law, and the law was violated in this event.  So on the advice of borough  attorney Karl Kemm, the council last Wednesday invoked the “principle of necessity” legal maneuver so they could vote and re-vote on the issues that the campaign law bars them from voting on.  He pointed to the need to have a quorum to make these votes, which would not be possible if three members affected recused themselves. I asked Mr. Kemm for the particular case law he was using as precedent for the council’s action.  He graciously sent me the finding of a case in Toms River where a majority of their council had a conflict in voting on the school budget (which had been voted down by the taxpayers) so they employed the “doctrine of necessity” to get around the problem and establish a quorum.  Click here to see it. 

I checked some links Mr. Kemm sent me and also searched Google to find other cases of the “principle of necessity” being invoked by the councils of any New Jersey towns.  There were several cases similar to the Toms River case, with council members being disqualified from voting on school issues because of relatives employed by the school district.  In one case, also in Toms River, the council needed to use the necessity maneuver in order to evaluate schools Superintendent Michael Ritacco.  See it here.  I guess he passed their evaluation but was arrested only months later in a huge corruption scandal.  Good thing they had that necessity loophole so they could do their evaluation.  Otherwise they might not have learned how much money he (allegedly) stole.  Umm…Oops!  Actually they missed the whole thing.  Sorry about that.

Of course, if I were in charge, it would not be the job of the government to ruin run the schools so there would be no conflicts of interest in that regard.  But if we are going to have government schools then candidates for municipal office should have to report all relatives working for the school district that they will have power over. 

In my research I could not find a single example of the “principle of necessity” being used to skirt a campaign-finance ethics law.  I’m not a lawyer but I’m not sure the matter should be dismissed so casually.  Anyway the issue is unlikely to go away anytime soon because  Michael Seebeck, who originally uncovered the problem, continues to pursue it. 

 I don’t believe the donation(s?) by the Barclay affected the way Mayor Doherty and his fellow Dems voted on the taxi licenses or parking permits.  And Matt Doherty is correct when he says this is a bad law and should be changed.  But he didn’t say anything about it until he got caught up in it himself and in 2007 enacted his own campaign contribution reporting law that requires reporting for public exposure campaign contributions of any amount, even as little as $1.  I consider it to be an incumbent-protection act and explain why here.

The lesson to be learned here is that the more power we give to politicians, the more we feel we need to have these convoluted ethics laws to keep them honest.  Why is it even up to the council to determine the correct number of taxi companies operating in Belmar?  If they don’t set a limit would we be overrun with taxicabs?  There’s just so many fares. Our council thinks the right number is ten.  So is nine too few?  Is eleven too many?  How do they know?  Why not let the market determine the correct number?  That would certainly be best  for taxi customers.  Don’t they count?  And it’s not just taxis.  The Special Improvement District leaders are preparing to decide what the proper “business mix” should be for Belmar.  We’ll need about a hundred new ethics laws to keep up with that.

Want to keep politicians from stealing your money?  Keep that money in your pocket, not theirs.  And want to stop them from influence-peddling?  Don’t give them the influence to peddle.  New laws are not going to make any of them more honest.

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