OCEAN CITY — Without clear guidelines to aid them, the campaign managers for two candidates in the upcoming municipal election have made very different decisions in handling a conflict-of-interest issue.
One removed himself from the debate committee of a community organization. The other maintained his position as president of two local organizations and his status as a member of the clubs’ debate committees.
Their decisions are not illegal or unethical, experts say, but should be exposed to public scrutiny.
“There are no laws for tight regulations on political operatives,” said William Schluter, a former Republican state senator and the co-sponsor of New Jersey’s state ethics law.
“It’s not an ethical issue. It’s a conflict-of-interest issue the press and public exposure should point out.”
State and local ethics policies govern those who are public employees and officials. For those such as campaign managers, conflict is mostly one of appearance that, experts said, should be brought to the citizenry’s attention so that voters can view the participants’ involvement with the proper skepticism.
“It’s the perception,” said Schluter, who served on the State Ethics Commission from 2006 until last year, when Gov. Chris Christie chose not to reappoint him. “It’s not actionable. With conflict, there is no regulation other than public opinion. Grab a megaphone and shout it.”
In Ocean City, where the mayor and three at-large council seats will be decided May 13, the potential conflict-of-interest issue came to light two weeks ago as the date of a forum sponsored by the Ocean City Community Association approached. Drew Fasy, campaign manager for incumbent Mayor Jay Gillian, resigned his position on OCCA’s debate committee earlier this month because, he said, “I didn’t want any appearance of conflict of interest.”
Bob Barr, campaign manager for at-large Councilman Keith Hartzell, has remained president of OCCA and the Ocean City Democrat Club, as well as retained his membership on the debate committees of both organizations. Barr also has used his personal email address to solicit questions for candidates to be asked at upcoming debates.
The next debate, co-sponsored by the Ocean City Democrat and Republican clubs, will be held 7 p.m. Tuesday for council candidates at the Bill and Nancy Hughes Performing Arts Center at Ocean City High School, 501 Atlantic Ave. The joint Democrat-Republican committee will hold a debate for mayoral candidates May 7.
Ethics laws limited
The Local Finance Board within the Department of Community Affairs, the Cape May County Board of Elections, and the state Election Law Enforcement Commission do not have policies that cover campaign managers. Ocean City itself does not have an ethics policy extending to campaign managers, who often act in volunteer capacities.
“That’s where they skirt the issues,” said Steven Fenichel, a longtime Ocean City activist who resigned from the city’s Ethics Board a year before it was disbanded in 2013. “When a citizen, as president of OCCA, can arrange the opportunity to educate the voters on issues, an effective ethics policy would include him as being subject to ethics laws.
“Having people not in office, like campaign managers, do the bidding of those in office allows contamination of the process by people beyond the reach of the law. Their actions directly impact people who will be in government.”
Opponents weigh in
Hartzell’s opponents said they would trust that the incumbent would not enjoy an unfair advantage due to his campaign manager’s affiliations, and that they were not in a position to change the situation.
“I do see a little bit of a conflict there,” Michael Hyson said. “I’m not really happy about it, but I would not not participate in the debates because, as a challenger, I need as much exposure to the public as I can get.”
“It doesn’t bother me, but it’s a fair concern,” challenger Peter Madden said, adding, “I can only work with what’s in my control.”
“Bob should not be involved at all because he’s someone’s campaign manager,” mayoral challenger Ed Price said. “Bob didn’t realize the potential for questions over this. You can’t have the appearance of impropriety. Bob should have stepped back immediately. If anyone should be 100 percent out, it should be him.”
Incumbent Michael Allegretto, who is seeking a third four-year term on council, said he trusted in the integrity of the individuals involved that the debates would be fair.
Schluter, the former state senator, said an open debate, where the public questions the candidates, is the only legitimate format for such an event. Organizers said that will not be the case tonight (April 29).
“If the questions are edited and monitored, that’s not an open debate,” Schluter said. “In the interest of transparency and fairness, the public has to have the opportunity to ask questions.”
For his part, Barr said, “I would have had concerns but I totally removed myself from things.”
He said the boards of the organizations on which he served were comfortable with the degree of his involvement, although OCCA changed last week’s Q&A to a meet-and-greet once the political associations of three of its four debate committee members were learned.
“I hired him because he’s good at social media and I’m not,” Hartzell said of the reason he appointed Barr. “I picked the most qualified person I could get. If I had just named him in charge of social media instead of campaign manager, I would have been accused of hiding the fact he’s working for me. I guess I can see it now, though. I didn’t think there’d be any repercussions from it.”
Mary Ann Nespoli, president of the Ocean City Republican Club, endorsed Barr without reservation. “There might be the appearance of conflict, but I trust Bob wholeheartedly,” she said.
“Quite frankly, I was not aware Bob was anyone’s campaign manager,” said Frank McCall, OCCA first vice president and a Republican Club debate committee member. He said the joint debate committee met earlier this month and while Barr’s position as Hartzell’s campaign manager was not mentioned, he was not bothered by Barr’s dual roles.
“It makes no difference to me,” McCall said. “There’s no advantage or edge to any of that stuff. People are going to vote for the candidate of their choice regardless of their campaign manager or ballot position or any of that.”
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