The all Republican Freeholder Board and the all Republican Manalapan Town Council recently voted (once again) to approve a million dollar plus payday for Republican former mayor, and current council member, Andrew Lucas. Mayor Lucas has also been an active fundraiser for existing Republican Freeholder and council members, including those who supported his award.  

The original application was opposed first by the sole Democratic then on the Town Council (Michelle Roth) and later by the sole Democratic then on the Freeholder Board (Amy Mallet). And it has since been continuously and generally highly criticized. A local newspaper labeled Lucas’ contentions as ‘laughable’. That broad public criticism eventually even sensitized some Republicans who have now, belatedly, opposed it.

Those who have supported the transaction ask that we take the Wizard of Oz’s famous advice and ignore the man (and the transaction) behind the curtain and only look at the fact that the state, county, and town funds are preserving land. In other words, the end justifies the means. One Freeholder suggested that she would even approve such a transaction for Hitler. While subsequently (sort of) apologizing for that remark, she stuck to her logic that, in the end, only preservation mattered.

But we don’t live in Oz. We live in a land where laws, ethics, and responsibilities also matter.

Here is a brief review of the saga.

Mayor Lucas, while a Manalapan public official, bought a piece of farmland in Manalapan. He then quickly applied for and received Farmland Preservation approval to exchange the development rights for a million dollar plus payment. The application was supported by the Republican Town Council and Freeholder members and approved by the Monmouth County Agriculture Development Board (MCADB). James Stuart, a Colts Neck Republican club president and MCADB member, was hired by Manalapan Township to conduct an appraisal of the property.  At the MCADB approval meeting a Republican Freeholder and Mayor Lucas lobbied for the application with the Freeholder blaming public ignorance for any controversy and Lucas blaming public and press misrepresentations.

Based on a citizen protest that Mayor Lucas led Township Committee discussions on other properties that could have competed for the same limited funds, Lucas' conduct was also reviewed by the state Local Finance Board (LFB) who came to a conclusion that only a politician could love. The letter finding, from the Republican chairman of LFB, said that Lucas' conduct was not a violation of the law but that future similar conduct would be! Subsequently, and based on that letter finding, the State Agriculture Development Committee (SADC) granted its approval. (Interestingly another state department, the Office of the State Comptroller, found an unrelated incident but similar conduct unethical. That investigation found a NJ Mayor had improperly profited by using his political influence and insider knowledge to push a project through multiple governmental hurdles.)

While Mayor Lucas has refused to publicly disclose his 2010 purchase price of the property, it appears that the last sale of the bulk of the property took place in 2004 at a price of $675,000. Some market trend reports indicate that the median property sale price in Manalapan since 2004 has actually decreased. For example, a home on the same road is currently selling at less than it sold for in 2006.

According to county documents the stated policy of Manalapan Township, and therefore the duty of its officials (including Mayor Lucas!), is to “actively encourage, support and assist participation by local farmers and landowners in the township, County and State Farmland preservation programs in order to preserve as much farmland in the township as possible.”

So, in the face of the factual circumstances and his official duties, it should have been asked what efforts did Mayor Lucas (and other council members) take in his (their) official capacity BEFORE the Lucas' purchase and application, to “encourage, support and assist” the former owner’s (not Lucas') participation in the FPP. For example, did the Mayor inform the appropriate town, county or state staff about the potential availability of the farm for sale so that they could discuss its potential preservation? Preservation staffs routinely advise such land owners on preservation practices and opportunities. And Mayor Lucas’ undisclosed purchase price is an important element of any analysis since, if the price was approximately equal or less than the $1.2 million price paid by the FPP, the town, county and state may have suffered actual financial harm by the Mayor’s actions and/or his inaction.

Besides allowing Lucas’ direct involvement in these matters, it seems also negligent for the Town Council and Freeholders to have approved this FPP transaction without full knowledge of all the important facts involved.

Unlike the Lion, Tin Man, or Scarecrow, the residents of Monmouth County are not lacking for courage, heart, or brains. And they are entitled to know who and what happened behind the political curtain. They care about the end and also the means the Republican Freeholders used to achieve it.

Brian Froelich

Monmouth County Freeholder Candidate