Democrats fighting to take over Monmouth freeholder board

Amy Mallet has not had much time to rest.

Last year, she ran for Assembly in what was perhaps the most hotly contested – and most expensive – election district in the state. Her entire ticket, which was made up of two incumbents, went down, largely attributed to a controversial farmland assessment tax break used by state Sen. Ellen Karcher.

But shortly after that loss, Mallet was again tapped by Democrats, the perennial minority party in Monmouth County, to work towards winning a majority on the freeholder board for the first time in recent memory. She's running with Hazlet Board of Education President Glen Mason against incumbent Republican Freeholder Director Lillian Burry and Republican Red Bank Councilman John Curley, a former Democrat and outsider to machine politics who beat out the Republican establishment's choice to win the party's nomination.

"After I put so much into it last year, I was thinking about how the issues have not gone away," said Mallet, who owns a promotional marketing company. "They're still out there in terms of government spending, and really the cost of living here and the fact that folks don't have a lot of faith in their elected officials."

Mallet and Mason consider themselves outsiders running against the Republican machine. Mason's platform, he said, is simple: accountability. A former police detective from Hazlet, Mason casts himself as a no-nonsense, blue collar answer to a freeholder board he charges with cronyism.

"I come from a background in law enforcement, and the thing is when you're a boss, you're a boss, he said. "When you do something wrong the bosses are paid to correct your actions, and it makes things run in an efficient manner."

The Democrats' biggest gripe over the last month was the case of James Cleary, an assistant county counsel who the state and Monmouth Utilities Authority charged too about $165,000 in benefits that he was not entitled to after leaving as the authority's attorney in 2002. While Freeholder Director Lillian Burry said that Cleary intended to pay back the money, the Democrats said that he would not have been removed from his post as assistant county counsel last week had they not raised a stink.

Mallet said that Burry ultimately decided to fire Cleary based on political calculations, since she initially said she intended to keep him on the job.

"He got a little hot there and she decided that this is something we need to do," said Mallet. "It was not done for the right reasons. It was done for political reasons… I don't see her as a hero here."

Indeed, the county's attorneys have become a big issue in this race. And while the Democrats have been tiptoeing around specifics, they're partially running against a powerful law firm that's frequently raised as a boogeyman by Republicans up in Bergen County: Scarinci & Hollenbeck. The Republicans' new chairman, Joseph Oxley, is a partner the firm, as is the county's labor attorney, Matthew Giacobbe, who plans to step down from that position. County Administrator Robert Czech, whose two year contract extension after a six month probationary period drew ire from the Democratic candidates, is a former member of the firm.

"If you follow politics and the government, doesn't it just not sound right?" said Mason.

But it may not be as easy for the Democrats to tie Curley to the political machine as with Burry. As a Red Bank councilman, he was a persistent thorn in the side of Mayor Ed McKenna, and won the Republican nomination with the help of State Sen. Jennifer Beck. He's associated with a group that opposed former Chairman Adam Puharic.

Still, the Democrats insist that another Republican on the board will be another vote for politics as usual.

"He's part of that same machine. He's out there with them as part of the same operation. So as far as he goes, no he's not a fresh new face out there," said Mallet. "He's not going to be the one to stand up."

Curley said that it's disingenuous for Democrats to run against machine politics.

"I think if the Democrats are running against machine politics, they're probably also running again Jon Corzine, because he's one of the biggest machine politics we have in the state of New Jersey," he said. "We need candidates who will stand up, won't be afraid of bosses and do what's the right thing for all the people."

Curley acknowledged that problems with county counsels, but said the solution the Democrats proposed – bringing in full-time attorneys – won't work. Instead, he said, he'd like to create the position of chief legal counsel, who will report to the freeholder board each month.

Burry, who's on vacation, could not be reached for comment. But Curley attributed her initial public reluctance to fire Cleary to her polite demander.

"She's a very gracious person. I tend to be a far more blunt person. I do feel she did fire him no matter what the semantics are," he said. "I pushed for Cleary to resign. That anyone that is serving in a county position and has accepted money or funding that they're not entitled to, should not be in employment in any way, shape or form in Monmouth County." Democrats fighting to take over Monmouth freeholder board