Belmar mayor’s race: a wave of post-Sandy project politics stirs up seaside Monmouth borough

BELMAR – When Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty rolled out his re-election campaign in February, he did so still basking in the glow of what many residents of the 6,000-person Monmouth County seaside borough saw as a star performance in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. 

Belmar’s boardwalk was rebuilt before Memorial Day last year, supported by an aggressive rebuilding effort directed by Doherty. The reconstruction campaign was fueled in part by a borough-sponsored website that allowed residents and visitors to securely purchase the actual boards that comprise Belmar’s new boardwalk.

The boardwalk was rebuilt with the considerable help of Republican Gov. Chris Christie, who met with Democrat Doherty soon after the storm. Doherty continues to tout an approach to local government that has helped Belmar to not raise taxes in the years since Doherty took office in January 2011. But a recent setback related to Sandy recovery has put a pothole in Doherty’s heretofore apparently smooth road to re-election. 

On Aug. 19, Belmar voters rejected a plan to borrow $7 million to rebuild two beach pavilions that were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. The special vote, which defeated the pavilion proposal by a 1,041 to 756 vote margin, or 57 to 43 percent, was a win for the plan’s opponents, who argued that the project could be completed for less by using Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) and insurance moneys. Supporters, however, claimed that the project was worth the expense since the pavilions must be built stronger to hold up to potential future hurricanes. 

In an interview with PolitickerNJ, Doherty, who is now considering options provided by Belmar residents regarding the future of the pavilions, took umbrage at the way the “no” side presented their argument. Ken Pringle, a former Belmar mayor and fellow Democrat, played a leading role in the pavilion opposition, sending out a letter shooting down Doherty’s plan just before the referendum vote. The letter, the production and distribution of which was paid for by Pringle and his wife, left Doherty particularly miffed. 

“We went from ten to three bidders when we proposed two versions of the pavilion project. [Pringle] is saying in the letter that in between those two bids is when a ‘restrictive’ ordinance was passed that limited how many people could bid. The ordinance was not in effect until after the bids were received,” Doherty said in his Borough Hall office. “Former Mayor Pringle knowingly and deliberately gave false information to the voters prior to the [pavilion] referendum. How do you reconcile that?” 

“The message was that the union bidders have an advantage,” Pringle told PolitickerNJ in an interview in his law office around the corner when asked about borough documents, provided by Doherty and available on the borough’s website, indicating a sequence of events that favored Doherty’s assertions about the ordinance. “He changed the ordinance at the last minute, and the effect of whatever happened is that it kept bidders from bidding. The issue before the voters was do we build the pavilions. It wasn’t do we accept the lowest bid. The issue was do the residents of Belmar want a $7 million bond ordinance adopted for this purpose. And the answer was resoundingly no.” 

Doherty was also irked that Pringle mentioned his wife, Maggie Moran, in the letter, noting her former role as an employee of Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) as well as her public relation firm’s ongoing representation of the powerful statewide union. Pringle inferred in the letter that these relationships represent “conflict issues.”

Moran is a force all her own in New Jersey politics. An adjunct professor at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics and former senior staffer for Gov. Jon Corzine, she is one of the lead organizers of the Ready for Hillary political action committee that is laying the ground work for former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s potential 2016 Democratic presidential nomination bid. 

Doherty told PolitickerNJ that while he has accepted personal political donations from LIUNA leader Ray Pocino, Belmar’s pay-to-play ordinance forbids any candidate committee from accepting any political action committee donations, including those sponsored by unions. 

“We are compelled by state law to award projects to the lowest bidder,” Doherty said. “In this case, the lowest bidder happened to be a unionized firm.” 

As for his wife, Doherty was direct.

“[Pringle] brought up my wife in a political attack piece. Most politicians know that wives and children are off limits when it comes to attacks,” Doherty said. “It doesn’t matter who my wife is.”

“That’s ridiculous. I think he’s thinking about the Mafia,” Pringle replied. “He’s a sitting mayor that is deciding issues that have a direct benefit to a client of his wife. Is he arguing that you get a pass if the person you are benefiting is your wife? That’s the most ridiculous thing that I’ve ever heard. That’s from The Godfather, not from the state’s municipal ethics law, that you can’t raise an issue about someone’s wife.” 

While the internecine strife between Democrats Doherty and Pringle continues unabated, there is a Republican candidate looking to take out Doherty: Belmar Councilman Jim Bean. 

Bean, the sole GOP member of the five-member borough council and who filed ethics complaints against Doherty last year, politely declined a request from PolitickerNJ for an interview, then issued a statement. 

“I understand your ambition to inform your readership of the happenings in Belmar, but it is my desire to just speak to the people of Belmar directly about local issues affecting their lives and about what I can do to help. I don’t believe discussing this under the spotlight of large, statewide media would be helpful to the people I wish to serve,” the statement read. “Thank you for understanding.” 

Pringle served as Belmar’s mayor for 20 years, from 1990 to 2010. After he said that “if I wanted to [run against Doherty], I would,” Pringle showed support for Bean. 

“Jim is courageous – he sticks by tough positions despite the fact that he gets battered four to one on every issue,” Pringle said. “He legitimately only cares about Belmar. He doesn’t care about county or statewide politics. He has no ambitions beyond doing what’s right by his community.” 

From the perspective of a Monmouth GOP leader, the outcome of the fight for Belmar, seen as a potential battleground town by both Monmouth Democrats and Republicans in 2014, is up in the air. 

“People will vote overwhelmingly against a ballot question, but vote for the person who proposed it,” said state Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon (R-13). “The Belmar Republicans are going to have to make their case. The voters could decide that the pavilion issue is over and they’ve made their point. Whether they will decide that Matt Doherty has to pay a bigger price or not is the question. It’s not something anyone should take for granted.” 

Doherty’s combative spirit, even after his pavilion defeat, indicates that he is not taking re-election for granted. 

“I do believe the former mayor is going to be involved in the mayoral race. He’s going to do the same thing in the mayoral election that he did during the referendum – provide false information to voters,” Doherty said, claiming that Bean is making the same false allegations used by Pringle in his campaign literature. “And people should be prepared for that. But we’ve had more private investment either in the ground or planned than in the previous 20 years, and in this way we generate more revenue outside of property taxes. Particularly post-Sandy, people want to see their municipal government work, efficiently and effectively. That means that we have to work with Republican freeholders, Republican legislators and a Republican governor. 

“Every election is different and distinct,” Doherty added. “This election, like every election, is about choices. My opponent has a Tea Party ideology that is very scornful of government on all levels, including on the municipal level. I tried to do my best during Sandy. But going forward, I believe that the majority of the people in Belmar, just like anybody in New Jersey, want their government to be efficient and effective. We have been efficient and effective.”  Belmar mayor’s race: a wave of post-Sandy project politics stirs up seaside Monmouth borough