Local Campaign Money Largely Hidden
Public blocked from seeing most campaign donations
With just more than two weeks to go before the November elections, local campaigns for two open Township Committee seats are ramping up efforts ahead of the Nov. 8 polling.
There are two, three-year terms on the five-member Township Committee up for election next month. Republican incumbents Ann Marie Conte and George Newberry are vying to retain their seats, challenged by Democrats Charles McFadden and Thomas Ehrlich.
Both sides have been in full fundraising mode for some time, according to recently filed reports with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission. The commission is charged with ensuring candidates’ compliance with state election laws, including fundraising.
The commission mandates each candidate, whether individually or as a ticket, to file a series of accounts of their fundraising activities. The first of those reports was due last week.
McFadden and Ehrlich, who filed as a ticket, have so far raised $11,050, according to the reports.
But where did that money come from? The public is only entitled to, at best, 44 percent of that answer, according to state election law.
State law requires that only political contributions from individuals in excess of $300 have to be reported in detail, including the donor’s name and address. Any donation less than $300 simply must be accounted for by amount. The donors are anonymous.
The law has been in place since the 1970s, according to Joe Donohue, spokesman for the election commission. There was a point when the reporting threshold was raised to $400, but it was reduced again, Donohue said.
And while regulations regarding donations by Political Action Committees and other groups are changed periodically, the $300 reporting threshold for individuals remains fixed, Donohue said.
How much can you see?
In the case of McFadden and Ehrlich, only $4,850 – or about 44 percent — of their election war chest is open to the public, according to the reports.
For incumbents Ann Marie Conte and George Newberry, even less is viewable.
Conte and Newberry have filed individually with the state election commission.
That's troubling to Ron Miskoff, board member of the New Jersey Foundation for Open Government, a good government group.
"I think in an open society, things like political contributions should be open,'' Miskoff said. "And we live in an open society. It's wrong to close that down.''
The Citizen's Campaign, a government watchdog group, also is opposed to the $300 reporting threshold, according to Heather Taylor, campaign spokeswoman.
"It would be better if all contributions were open, or a least the threshold lowered,'' Taylor said.
Newberry said he was comfortable with the $300 reporting threshold, but would not be opposed to eliminating it entirely.
"I feel if you're going to change it, change it to zero,'' Newberry said. "I feel very comfortable that there are a lot of average citzens who have contributed to my campaign, and I'm not embarrased by anyone who has contributed to my campaign. But if it's going to be adjusted, probably you should just do away with it because there's always going to be that downward questioning.''
Democrat challenger Ehrlich said he would look into making the contributions to his campaign available for inspection.
"We're proud of our donor list and I'm willing to make that list public,'' Ehrlich said. "I think that it should be as open as possible. Everything to give people more confidence in their elected officials.''
Conte, the sitting mayor, has raised $10,076.96 – nearly as much as her Democratic challengers combined — according to the reports.
The vast majority of that — $9,027.96, or roughly 90 percent — was raised during her bid to win the local Republican nomination during the GOP primary earlier this year.
The remainder of Conte’s election war chest — $1,049, or about 10 percent — came in under the $300 reporting threshold, keeping the donors anonymous to the public.
Looking at Conte’s primary election fundraising, filed with the election commission on June 27, the mayor raised $17,784.25. Conte spent $8,156.29 on the campaign, and received $600 worth of goods or services in lieu of a cash donation.
The remaining money, $9,027.96, was eventually transferred to the current campaign. And of that, about 74 percent or $7,909.25, was under the $300 threshold, making the donations anonymous.
The rest — $2,850.25 or about 26 percent — was donated by an Ocean Township cardiologist, a Wall Township dentist, a local engineering firm and attorney Timothy Middleton, who frequently appears before the township’s Board of Adjustment and Planning Board, according to the reports.
More primary money
George Newberry, who earlier this year lost a bid for his party’s nomination for a Monmouth County Freeholder seat, also transferred the vast majority of his current campaign money for a Township Committee seat from funds raised during the primary election.
Newberry transferred $8,270.59 from donations received during the primary election and has raised just $1,450 for his Township Committee seat, bringing his campaign to a total of $9,720.59, according to the reports.
All of the money – 100 percent – that Newberry has raised for his municipal bid falls under the $300 threshold. The donors are anonymous.
Similarly, in the last report to the election commission following Newberry’s primary bid, none of the $4,033.58 raised in that reporting period was open to public scrutiny. It all fell under the $300 reporting threshold.
And of the $9,800.91 total Newberry raised during his uncontested primary election, only $750 was over the $300 limit during the whole of the campaign, according to the reports.
Election commission reports show that McFadden and Ehrlich have broad union support, both inside and outside Wall Township.
The Democrats received money from a roofers union based in Parsippany, a plumbers union based in Englishtown, a sheet metal workers union based in Farmingdale, an ironworkers union based in Kenilworth and the IBEW Local 400 on Route 138 in Wall.
The pair also received a contribution from the election fund of Joseph Cryan, a Democrat state assemblyman from Union as well as the Gloucester County Freeholder election campaign of state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat.