TOMS RIVER, NJ – Ocean County Freeholder Director Joe Vicari objected to the county’s change to the open space land trust that would have allowed RNC Committeewoman and Ocean County Freeholder Virginia E. Haines, age unknown, to use the Ocean County open space trust fund as a political piggy bank. Haines was hoping the measure would pass to facilitate an illegal purchase of publicly owned lands in Toms River by the township to assist Toms River Mayor Maurice Hill to facilitate the purchase of the Ortley Beach Surf Club. Hill has been trying to sell land, but so far, as a real estate agent, he’s been striking out. Earlier this year, Hill tried to sell a township-owned plot of land on Hinds Road in Silverton via auction to a member of the Lakewood Township Planning Board.
Hill sat in the audience on Wednesday as a contentious freeholder meeting unfolded between Freeholder Director Joseph Vicari and Ginny Haines.
Haines, in a moment of entitlement, told the board of freeholders the Ocean County Natural Lands Trust Fund was hers and Vicari set the record straight.
“I realized Freeholder Haines you feel it’s our department,” Vicari said. “No, it’s not.”
“It’s not?” Haines interrupted.
“No, the money belongs to the people of Ocean County,” Vicari said. “Before we spend one percent of the taxpayer’s money, there was full and total transparency…I want to feel comfortable that I do the right thing.”
Vicari noted that Haines had asked to be the last speaker on the matter during the meeting and Vicari blocked her from that to, “No…I’ll tell you who is going to be the last speaker, I am.”
Vicari said he felt uneasy by relaxing the restrictions on how to allocate the over $60,000,000.00 in the open space fund. Haines wanted to use the account to pay out municipalities that have already bought the land that could be preserved.
Freeholder Jack Kelly, who was the deciding vote said it was a hard decision, but now was not the time to make such a large decision in a time when the general public was limited to coming to the meeting to support or oppose the change.
Freeholder Gerry Little told Mayor Maurice Hill that if he wants to preserve the land he is trying to sell to the county that the township council can propose a simple resolution declaring the land as protected open space. Little said the law as it now does not permit the county to purchase land already owned by the government.
“They had the land probably for generations, maybe hundreds of years, couple million bucks, so they can simply add it to their own open space plan,” Little said. “It is a false argument to say we should buy it because they haven’t preserved it because they can preserve it.”
The vote was another stunning political defeat for Haines and Ocean County GOP Chairman Frank B. Holman.
“If we pass this today, this will create a slippery slope down the road that this fifty to sixty million dollar fund will become a political piggy bank,” Little said. “We buy private land. Government-owned land is already preserved. Nobody needs to buy it.”
Now, Hill will have to find a new way to fund the politically connected purchase of the former Joey Harrison’s Surf Club property from owner Joey Barcelona, being represented by longtime GOP organizer Lawrence Bathgate.
“I want to support Mayor Mo Hill, but if I tell him yes, what do I do with a Democrat mayor or a mayor?” Little asked.
Haines read an uninspiring prepared statement into the record, claiming it is the will of now-deceased Freeholder John Bartlet, claiming her family has been in Ocean County since the 1600s when colonists drove out the Lene Lenape Indians.
With a 2-2 tie, the vote rested on the head of Freeholder Jack Kelly who voted no. Haines and Freeholder Gary Quinn voted yes. Kelly, Vicari, and Little voted no.