Green Wins Major Endorsement in NJ

Green Party candidate for Monmouth Freeholder, Brian Unger, has won himself a major endorsement from the Asbury Park Press...

Before setting forth our reasons for endorsing just one candidate — the Green Party’s Brian Unger — for the two available seats on the all-Republican Monmouth County Board of Freeholders, some background is in order:
The board’s longtime director, Harry Larrison Jr., was charged in April with receiving $8,500 in bribes from two developers. He died in June.

Since February, the FBI has leveled bribery and money-laundering charges against seven Monmouth County employees.

Two businessmen whose companies hold multimillion-dollar county contracts were snared in the FBI corruption sting in Monmouth County. One of them, the owner of a limousine and transportation company that received more than $1.1 million in county business, said the bid specifications were “tailored” for his company.

Anthony Palughi, the county’s former bridge superintendent who retired in March at a salary of $92,116, held a largely no-show job, serving as unofficial chauffeur to Larrison. Palughi pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy charges in August.

The freeholders spent $107,000 for lawyers to represent nine members of the Prosecutor’s Office in a federal grand jury investigation into whether the office interfered with an FBI bribery sting. The probe apparently ended with no indictments.

Then, there’s the patronage, extravagant spending and waste, detailed in the Press’ “Club Monmouth” series in August. That was a follow-up to similar Press investigations over the past two years exposing disdain for taxpayers and a sense of entitlement among the freeholders and top county officials. Of the state’s 21 counties, Monmouth now collects more tax dollars from its residents and has a larger county payroll than all but one, Essex. It has the highest per-capita tax among the state’s nine largest counties.

Despite the clear pattern of ethics abuse, corruption and profligate spending, the response from the freeholder board has been largely defensive and halfhearted. Major change is needed. Fresh blood is needed. A watchdog on the board is needed, one who is independent, unconstrained by party bosses and campaign contributors and prepared to serve only one master — the Monmouth County taxpayer. Unger is that person. He is the only candidate in the five-person field adequately equipped to throw a bucket of cold water in the board’s collective face.

The necessity of electing someone to the board who will fight for long-overdue ethics reform, fiscal austerity and openness has prompted us to implore voters to cast a “bullet vote” for Unger. That means casting only one vote for the two available seats. That tactic will help minimize the vote totals for the others, giving Unger, who has a meager $4,000 in his campaign war chest, a better chance of getting elected.

The bullet vote approach can work. That was demonstrated earlier this year when Stafford school board outsider John Mastandrea was elected in a hotly contested board race by employing that strategy. Unger, who made a creditable showing as a third-party candidate in his 2003 run for the 11th District Senate seat held by Joseph A. Palaia, could be aided immeasurably by bullet voting.

The two Republican candidates, despite their claims to being party outsiders, are nothing of the kind. William Barham was handpicked by Larrison to succeed him when he retired. Both Barham and running mate Lillian Burry, a Colts Neck committeewoman, are the choices of the party organization. Neither has demonstrated any inclination or ability to fundamentally change the way the county operates. It will happen only with a strong dissenting voice on the board, one which Unger can provide.

The ethics reforms instituted by the county in the wake of Press reporting of abuses and the FBI bribery stings have been a farce. Unger repeatedly urged the county to pass a comprehensive ethics reform bill patterned after one in Mercer County that would eliminate wheeling — the practice of shipping money from one political campaign fund to another, often allowing the source of the money to be disguised. The freeholders have refused to act, and Barham says they will not until the state prohibits wheeling.

Despite the many examples of excessive spending, waste and perks enjoyed by the freeholders and other county employees, Barham maintains the county operates in a cost-effective manner. Repeated investigative stories in the Press over the past two years have demonstrated that is not the case.

While county officials boast that the tax rate has fallen more than 10 percent each of the past two years, the average county portion of the property tax bill has increased 8 percent a year over the past five years. More than 230 employees made more than $100,000 last year. The county’s corrections officers averaged $21,600 apiece in overtime last year and used an average of 21 sick and family leave days. County groundskeepers averaged $5,000 apiece in overtime.

Barham and Burry say they support GOP gubernatorial candidate Doug Forrester’s “30-in-3” plan for the state, which would reduce property taxes by 30 percent in three years. But their “tax cut plan” for the county calls for a 10 percent reduction in the tax rate over the next three years — a proposal that presumes the average Monmouth County taxpayer is a dunce. Over the past two years, the rate has fallen 10 percent each year, while the average tax bill has continued to soar. The promised rate cut, then, is only about a third as large as the average of the past two years. And reductions in the tax rate, as Barham and Burry well know, do not equate to cuts in spending or reductions in the county portion of property tax bills.

The tax plan epitomizes the board’s failure to take county residents’ tax concerns seriously. The only candidate who has is Unger, who has called for no increases in county taxes for two years and a hiring freeze on all non-essential employees until an independent audit has been conducted of the county’s operations.

The Democratic candidates, Manalapan Committeewoman Rebecca Aaronson and former Freehold Borough Councilwoman and Howell High School Principal Barbara McMorrow, of Freehold Township, have run lackluster campaigns. They have failed to demonstrate the grasp of details or the fire in the belly needed to rouse the current board from its lethargy.

The contempt the one-party board has shown county taxpayers over the past few years calls for extreme measures. Bullet voting is extreme. But it’s an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats alike to send a clear message that they are fed up with the corruption, the deceit, the patronage and the reckless expenditure of their tax dollars. Unger is the only hope for radical change. Make it happen.

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