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Belmar Mayor Says Donation Info Request Inappropriate, Councilman Wants Accountability

Debate over councilman's request for info on who gave and received gift cards after Hurricane Sandy

A records request from Councilman Jim Bean, asking for who gave and received gift cards as part of Hurricane Sandy relief in Belmar, was met with debate and disappointment from Mayor Matt Doherty.

At the previous Belmar Council meeting, Doherty and Bean debated the merits of Bean's Open Public Records Act request to itemize who donated gift cards to the borough for distribution, in what amounts, and who received them. Bean also sought the criterion the borough used to distribute the gift cards, and wanted the addresses of the people who donated and received the gift cards.

The gift cards ranged from local restaurants and home improvement stores to more all-purpose American Express or Mastercard gift cards, Doherty said. Tens of thousands of dollars in gift cards were donated, some anonymously.

But the mayor didn't understand the intention behind Bean's request, saying it went too far and was inappropriate.

Bean said he is only seeking information and is simply aiming for more open government and accountability.

The two men kept repeating questions and responses to each other as part of the debate, with the mayor asking "Why do you want the names and addresses of the people who donated and received gift cards? You even want the addresses, why?"

Bean responded to the repeated question similarly: "I'm just trying to get information, to hold government accountable."

The councilman saw the potential for problems in that local government officials were accepting donations and then handing them out. A list of who gave and received could ward off any problems or criticisms, Bean said.

"What I believe is all those gift cards we receive as government should have been given away to church to distribute," Bean said. "I don’t believe government officials should be making criterion for handing out those things."

Doherty said he understands the intention, but did not agree with asking for the addresses of those who received donated gift cards and for what amount.

"I just want to make sure we have a list of what came in and what went out," Bean said. "I want to make sure everything that came in to us also went out. This is just trying to get accountability of what came in."

The mayor asked, what if someone donated anonymously or didn't realize their donation would be made public? What if a block of donations were handed over to a group to donate or donated by a group?

"Then put down 'Anonymous'" Bean agreed. "List the name of the group...This is just a request for information."

Doherty, a Democrat, asked the lone Republican councilman whether this request was for some other purpose. "Could this be used to embarrass someone?" said the mayor. He was disappointed in the request for addresses in particular. "I'm not happy at all about that. I don’t think its appropriate. If the press asks, I’d be hesitant to give it to them."

Doherty added the OPRA request could have a chilling effect on future generosity.

"My concern is, by requiring people to give names and addresses if they donate and if they are eligible, I think it would dissuade people in the future," said the mayor.

"Why do you get upset with these questions?" asked Bean. "I just want information to hold government accountable."

Less troublesome than the names and addresses was providing Bean with a copy of the criteria used to distribute the gift cards. Belmar has a list of individuals still without power after 5 p.m. Nov. 12, and those people were distributed the aid based on more than two weeks without electricity, Doherty said.

A large block of gift cards was sent to Belmar Elementary School for distribution, and the senior housing development residents received donations as residency there is based on income guidelines, said the mayor. 

Kelly Williams, in charge of the borough social services department, handed out the donations according to state Department of Community Affairs guidelines, said the mayor.

"We don’t tell her who to give to or who to not give to. There’s a criteria for it. You're welcome to reach out to her," Doherty said. "She's a professional. Are you saying you suspect her of wrongdoing, is that why you are requesting this info?"

Bean said his only intention is to have more information available. "You are privy to things I am not," Bean said to the mayor. "I've asked lots of questions. That's all this is."

Bean agreed to extend his OPRA request through Jan. 8, as law only allows record keepers a certain time frame to respond.

"I'm making sure everything donated is given out properly," Bean said.

Doherty responded: "I can assure you it is, but I understand why you'd ask that...But why do you want people who received need to be accountable?"

Bean answered: "No, not those who received. I want to hold the municipality accountable. We’re just making sure."

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Michael Keenan January 02, 2013 at 02:56 PM
This is why 501C 3 organizations have board members, who receive no pay or benefits. The funds they distribute go to where they are needed. The question is asked, because in the past, government officials have not used the funds as intended. Belmar obviously has done the right thing all along, but other towns have demonstrated an inability to handle public funds and donations with the same integrity.
Beryl Cusic January 02, 2013 at 03:09 PM
Once again, I do not think that this is such a huge problem. I really do think that there should be some accounting for the donations. The easiest way is if it was anonomous, that's fine, however, anyone who donated, expecting a tax right off, should be listed as well as anyone who received them, making sure there was no bias as to what was passed out to whom. Quite frankly, I do not know anyone who received any of the gift cards.
JD January 02, 2013 at 04:17 PM
Wow... for the Mayor not to provide.... SMELLS... Per Opra LAW, he needs to provide all that was asked... easy appeal... makes me wonder... who collected these cards, how did they come in, how was it accounted for... betcha a lot of cards slipped through the cracks into someone's pocket!!! seems the Mayor doesn't want people to know if he played favorites with the cards.. btw Mayor, he doesn't need a reason for the information or what he wants to do with it.. all he has to do is ask in writing... and you have to provide!!!
paulie January 02, 2013 at 06:23 PM
@JD - I agree 100% with you - Bean has every right to this information and the fact that Doherty is so defiant makes one wonder just what did go on.
charlie January 02, 2013 at 06:33 PM
And the shoprite gift certificates were given to anyone on the subsidized school meal plan. Seems like a lazy way to give out the money.
Local Reader January 02, 2013 at 07:28 PM
Bean and the residents are completely entitled to this information; Doherty and team should have no qualms about providing it. The fact that they do alone is suspect. Mr. Bean no doubt has become the Donald Grasso of Belmar; he is a one man show, trying to do the right thing, who will continue to be snubbed and ridiculed by the others for having the audacity to ask the tough questions. The media will make him out to be a demon, the Doherty camp supporters will write letters disparaging him. Keep it up, Bean and may your skin be thick!
Beryl Cusic January 02, 2013 at 09:42 PM
ok, I get that, but the people on the subsidized school meal plan (free lunch etc) were not the only ones who lost their food etc. Just would like to see where it all went.
Penn Cross January 02, 2013 at 11:03 PM
Good for Councilman Bean. He's not trying to embarrass anyone; he just wants to make sure no corruption took place.
Bowie Thelonius January 02, 2013 at 11:42 PM
Why shouldn't there be accountability? If you have nothing to hide, get the information out there.
Connie Vassallo-Gutierrez January 02, 2013 at 11:47 PM
I sit here reading this article is disbelief. Immediately after the storm and every day after for nearly 2 weeks I spent nearly every waking hour trying to help my friends, neighbors, my community in the disaster recovery effort. Hundreds and hundreds of volunteers arrived daily to help distribute essential supplies, hand out blankets , diapers and food. There were truckloads of donations coming in throughout the day, there were people walking through the doors dropping cases of food, water, blankets and coats, and gift cards along with so many other basic necessities. There was an overwhelming need from our residents, some only escaping the wrath of Sandy with only the clothes on their backs. There was also overwhelming support by volunteers and donations coming from all over the country. Not once, not ONCE did I see Councilman Bean. Not as an elected official, not as a volunteer, not as a concerned citizen, not once! Now, the first public comment I have seen from Councilman Bean is a question on the specifics of where the gift card donations came from, and who they went to. Councilman Bean, where were you? You would have seen the faces of devastated neighbors and friends walking through the doors of borough hall looking for help, for support, and sometimes just a hug and the reassurance that everything will be alright. You should have put this type of effort into helping all of us with the disaster relief effort instead of wasting energy on a political agenda.
Dave Schneck January 03, 2013 at 12:33 AM
Connie, I saw him and Tracy day after day, week after week, out there helping with the clean up. Just because he wasn't there hanging out with Matt and his friends doesn't mean he wasn't helping! Maybe you should know what you're talking about before claiming he didn't help. What's wrong with demanding accountability to make certain the help is really going to those who need it most? It means he really wants to make sure the right people are being helped. There is a pattern developing in this administration that anyone who asks any questions is immediately smeared. I thought that this was supposed to be an open and transparent administration. What a joke.
Belmar Bunny January 03, 2013 at 01:54 AM
Jim Bean was at my house and offered the entire neighborhood help in any way he could! Whether you agree with Councilmab Bean's beliefs or approach is one thing, but he is doing exactly what he promised he would do when he campaigned, and for what he was elected to do. Connie Guitterez, you have some nerve!!! Shame on you for pointing your finger and accusing someone of not helping their community! Libel comes to mind! Jim and his wife volunteered and countinue to help anyone who's ever asked! You sound bitter honey!
JD January 03, 2013 at 02:29 AM
what happened to the CASH... or gift cards?? Did you account for it? Did you put it in your pocket? Donations of clothing, etc is nothing... people line up and get what they need. But when it comes to cash... it ends up in peoples pocket who didn't have a need. In fact, there were stories of people lining up to get free stuff and were not affected that they started asking for ID so they can determine if they lived in the affected area.
3kidsinNJ January 03, 2013 at 01:30 PM
I don't think the good Councilman read OPRA before making his request. There is certain private information, like addresses, that should not be released. People, even people receiving public assistance, have a certain right to privacy. Under OPRA and NJ case law that right is protected. If all he cared about was "government accountability" he could have just asked to see the criteria of how the cards were distributed. I bet if he asked outside the council chambers he could have seen the list of people who received that help, but no he had to make a show of himself. It seems like he is out to either embarrass someone or get dirt on someone. I am sure there are many, good, hard working Belmar citizens, people in need, who received a gift card who would be very embarrassed if their names were put out there for the world to see they needed the help. I hope the town charges him for the work they have to do to produce the request. If Kelly Williams has to spend any extra time on this stupidity the town better get reimbursed, which it can under OPRA. I don't want my tax dollars paying for such nonsense.
njshoredad January 03, 2013 at 01:52 PM
I agree with 3kidsinNJ. It sounds like the Councilman is just after the Mayor for personal reasons. If the Councilman has an issue with the Mayor, take it outside the Council Chambers. So long as you are in that room you should be focused on serving the people of Belmar, not some personal vendetta. Belmar has some serious issues here to get back to normal. Did you people not see the next potential problem-our sewer system?? I know Doherty is going to get it checked, but how much more is that? And what if they find parts need to be replaced? How are taxpayers going to foot that bill?? That town he visited, Pass Christian still hasn't recovered from Katrina-YEARS LATER! Belmar doesn't have that kind of time. As to publishing people's names and addresses who received those gift cards- that's shameful! We all know people on food stamps or people who's kids get free lunch at school, does he really want to publicly list that? That's just mean.
Belmar Bunny January 03, 2013 at 03:06 PM
Lets be clear! Belmar's sewer system has had problems for years! Remember when Councilman Wright tried to research it. The system is old and was already in need of repair. The storm most likely didn't help, but it is a infrastructure that has long been ignored!
BelmarKT January 03, 2013 at 06:33 PM
I think it's good that Bean is asking for accountability. I thought the whole 'gift card' distribution seemed to be an odd way of passing out donations and was skeptical of where my money was going.
Level Head January 03, 2013 at 06:45 PM
I believe that it is Councilman Bean’s duty to question and to understand the who, what, and where of donations made to and then distributed by the borough. Technically those donations became borough funds and maybe somebody should have thought about that from the beginning, or shortly thereafter, and had a charitable organization handle it all. Now I read the comments to this article and am floored that a failed council candidate herself (Connie Vassallo-Gutierrez), is lashing out at Councilman Bean’s sincerity to his community and states that she never saw him during the entire emergency period. Ms. Vassallo-Gutierrez, maybe Councilman Bean never saw you either. For the record, Councilman Bean and his wife were busy in my neighborhood alone for several days cleaning out our basements which were flooded. Maybe it was the Councilman’s choice of activity to roll up his sleeves and directly help residents in their neighborhoods as opposed to others who spent time in borough hall writing endless Press Releases day and night in attempts to attract media attention to themself. By the way, how did that disaster relief center work for the residents of Belmar when it became overrun with people from outside of the area due to the never ending press release campaign, much of which advertised to all of New Jersey that Belmar had such a center? Councilman Bean is one of many compassionate, giving, and concerned citizens that Belmar not only has, but deserves.
njshoredad January 03, 2013 at 06:54 PM
Level Head- I don't who exactly sent those press releases but they were vital for information and was how the town was able to bring so many donations and help in. If the Mayor didn't attract media attention to Belmar we wouldn't be in as good a shape as we are now, those press releases brought volunteers from all over to help clean up people's houses, get firewood to people without heat, blankets to cold kids, etc. That was necessary. It was also necessary to the people who evacuated, how else were we supposed to know what was going on? And the relief center was a god-send. I didn't care if I had to share with others who were affected and came seeking aid. It was because it was so well stocked, due to all those press releases, that people all over our region were able to get help. Are you saying only Belmar citizens should have received help? That Belmar should only look after it's own??? That's very unkind.
3kidsinNJ January 03, 2013 at 07:00 PM
I don't have an issue with accountability. I have an issue with people's private information being broadcast. Bean could have handled it a better way. Instead he put his personal agenda against the Mayor first instead of his council duties to all the citizens.
JD January 03, 2013 at 08:29 PM
The addresses can be redacted.... but the names cannot. The only costs that can be recouped are copying costs... which is minimal... manpower time cannot be reimbursed. You also assume only people who lived in Belmar got the cards... that is why the list may prove interesting....
njshoredad January 03, 2013 at 09:26 PM
Level Head- I don't who exactly sent those press releases but they were vital for information and was how the town was able to bring so many donations and help in. If the Mayor didn't attract media attention to Belmar we wouldn't be in as good a shape as we are now, those press releases brought volunteers from all over to help clean up people's houses, get firewood to people without heat, blankets to cold kids, etc. That was necessary. It was also necessary to the people who evacuated, how else were we supposed to know what was going on? And the relief center was a god-send. I didn't care if I had to share with others who were affected and came seeking aid. It was because it was so well stocked, due to all those press releases, that people all over our region were able to get help. Are you saying only Belmar citizens should have received help? That Belmar should only look after it's own??? That's very unkind."
Donna L Shaver-Kaiser January 04, 2013 at 07:07 PM
I do not feel that all names and addresses should be made public. I also need to say I did not see Councilman Bean anywhere on oceanfront. I live there. I am so disturbed with this. To help people in our community is the issue. We all had no electric,heat,phones and plus water everywhere. We couldn't even cook anything. I wish Councilman Bean would think more of the people in Belmar instead of worrying about who got what. This is not a political debate. Be there for us. The Council Members were all there plus Mayor Matt Doherty. Still are. Where were you Councilman Bean? I didnt see you.
Dave Schneck January 05, 2013 at 12:36 AM
All these accusations of this person or that not helping are highly inappropriate. Unless you have the ability to be everywhere at every time then you don't know who helped and how much. If you don't know, then don't be making accusations! The truth is that Jim Bean and his wife Tracy busted their asses helping out all day every day after the storm for many weeks. I know this for a fact! Stop smearing anyone who has questions about this administration. My name is David Schneck and I suppose you never saw me either! Go ahead! Say it!
NJshoreguy January 06, 2013 at 07:05 PM
In my opinion, i bet that there were people that really needed gift cards that reached out to Bean, and when it came time to distribute, there were no more left. I can see people being frustrated on both sides, where they dont want the information public, yet there are some people who did not receive any assistance that want to know where the donations went, and are relying on Bean to get the information. I would never say that the mayor was "pocketing" anything, but maybe with the stress and pressure of everything, and inexperience in recovery after a natural disaster, the funds could have been distributed more efficently.

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