OCEAN CITY — The vice president of the watchdog civic group Fairness In Taxes is criticizing city spending of $5,000 a month on a lobbyist hired to help clear the way for back bay dredging projects.
In recent years, the city has undertaken an extensive effort to clear the lagoons and harbors along the west side of the island. Officials with Mayor Jay Gillian’s administration have said this and other infrastructure work has been too long neglected. Each year, the city invests millions of dollars in dredging, flood and drainage improvements and paving projects.
Dave Breeden, FIT’s vice president and a former employee with the city’s Public Works Department, generally speaks in favor of infrastructure improvements. But at a recent City Council meeting, he took aim at a contract with the lobbying firm Tonio Burgos Associates.
No one from Tonio Burgos Associates responded to a request for comment.
City officials said critics’ understanding of the work the firm has done is limited.
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Based on city reports acquired through the Open Public Records Act and lobbying records required by New Jersey and the federal government, Breeden said he found no proof the firm made any efforts on the city’s behalf for close to two years.
The original contract was signed in 2016 and renewed in December 2017. Breeden said he received no answer when he asked how the city would evaluate the firm’s efforts. He said he submitted five OPRA requests seeking more details of the lobbyist’s efforts, including any reports submitted to the city.
“All five times, nothing in return,” Breeden told City Council. “You pay these people $5,000 a month, and not one piece of paper beyond what they need to submit to execute the professional services contract and to get the monthly payment.”
According to previous reports, the firm was set to work closely with ACT Engineering, hired to serve as the city’s dredging consultant and help formulate a long-term plan to keep the back bays clear of silt.
Breeden called for the city to cancel the Tonio Burgos contract, stating it does not benefit the city.
There was no response from the city administration or members of council at the meeting.
“The limited records referenced by the commenter in no way reflect the track record of success delivered by this firm,” Ocean City spokesman Doug Bergen said.
Breeden said the invoices to the city simply say “for services rendered” with no description of the work undertaken or the accomplishments achieved. In his comments, he described the firm as “the lucky lobbyist.”
Breeden’s search of records found Tonio Burgos arranged 10 meetings with state officials in 2016 and 2017, including meetings with the state Department of Environmental Protection, the state Department of Transportation and then-state Sen. Jeff Van Drew.
“Based on the information that I have, there have been no lobbying efforts by the lucky lobbyist since the third quarter of 2017,” Breeden said. The firm did set up a meeting with the DEP in July of this year, he added. “Let’s not kid ourselves. There have been no meetings, and no lobbying efforts for two years. There is no paperwork, not one shred of documents, indicating their work after five OPRA requests.”
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At a town hall meeting on back bay dredging in December 2016, Gillian said Tonio Burgos would help find a way to cut through red tape and seek public funding for dredging programs.
The city has seen some success. In spring 2018, officials said Ocean City had been issued the state’s first-ever citywide dredging permit. At the beginning of this year, the DEP extended the city’s dredging season by a month.
The lagoons along Ocean City’s bayside are lined with boat docks. Over time, the thick, dark silt that builds up on the floor can make them impassible at low tide. It requires heavy machinery to keep these waterways clear. But those efforts are limited both by environmental regulations limiting the timing of the work and the need to find somewhere to deposit the material as existing dredge spoils sites quickly fill in.
“The city is committed to investing in long-overdue infrastructure improvements but faces bureaucratic obstacles at every step of the way,” said Bergen. “The lobbyist firm has been essential in forging partnerships with state and federal agencies to secure funding, permits and regulatory relief. The work has helped Ocean City become a model throughout the state for municipalities working on bayside dredging and flood remediation projects.”