[4:20 pm. 10/2/21 – Edited to include additional comments from AH Candidates James Murphy and Ellen O’Dwyer – Wood about why they declined to participate.]

ATLANTIC HIGHLANDS, NJ – In August, all six candidates for Atlantic Highlands Borough Council agreed to participate in a Candidate’s Forum moderated by the non-partisan League of Women Voters of Greater Red Bank, an organization with an established record for fair and informative forums. 

The forum would be held over Zoom on October 18, 2021. Residents could send their questions in via email ahead of time. A trained League moderator from outside the voting area would preside. (See Candidate’s Forum Format and Ground Rules supplied to each candidate with the August 16, 2021 cover letter.)

Registrants for the forum would not only view the forum in real time but have the ability to link to the LWV website after the forum, giving them the opportunity to review the program before going to the voting booth.

James Murphy and Ellen O'Dwyer - Wood
James Murphy and Ellen O’Dwyer – Wood, Republican candidates for Atlantic Highlands Borough Council

At the time, Republican candidate Ellen Y. O’Dwyer-Woods said, “Both Jim and I are delighted that all of the candidates for election are willing to present their views and outline their plans in a public forum.” She continued, “We want to thank the League for offering to conduct the forum, and for adopting virtual webinars, not only for the health and safety measures it provides, but also because it would enable so many more people to attend.”


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Then, in a September letter to the editor, Steve Boracchia, a Republican Borough Councilman, objected to provisions of the forum. He raised concerns about, “The issue of filtering.  Transparency is lost when we give control of questions to an outside organization.  How will they decide the questions to ask?   What research will they do?  Who will they ask to help with the local issues?  Who approves the questions?  What will be off limits?  Who decides that?  What will they omit because it doesn’t meet their standard for a “fair question”?  What is their bias?”  Mr. Boracchia did not respond to an email seeking comment.

On Wednesday, the League of Women Voters issued the following statement:

“The Republican candidates, James P. Murphy and Ellen Y. O’Dwyer-Woods – have today informed us that they do not intend to participate in the forum. As we still have two parties running for two positions, we still intend to conduct the forum,” wrote League spokeswomen, Marianne Kligman.

Ellen Y. O’Dwyer, responding to questions from AHHerald wrote, “We opted in at the first invitation, but when the terms and format were presented, were not agreeable to them as proposed. We have been working with the LWV to come to agreement over several weeks, and unfortunately the parties could not bridge the gap on all issues.”

AH Candidates Brian Dougherty and Allyson D'Almeida
Atlantic Highlands Democratic Candidates for Borough Council, Brian Dougherty and Lesley D’Almeida

Democratic Candidates Brian Dougherty and Lesley D’Almeida said in a statement, “Our position is unchanged.  We are honoring our commitment to participate. We gave our word to the residents of Atlantic Highlands and look forward to responding to their questions. “

Democratic Chairwoman, Regina Keelen sent a letter to the editor excoriating Republicans for withdrawing from the forum.

Later in the morning, Independent candidates, husband and wife, Zack Brown and Morgan Spicer, running under the Bring Back Balance banner also withdrew from the scheduled forum.

Zack Brown and Morgan Spicer - Independent Candidate for AH Council
Zack Brown and Morgan Spicer – Independent Candidates for Atlantic Highlands Borough Council

“We will not be participating in the LWV debate unless the Republicans change their minds.
We will participate in any forum or debate with the condition that all six candidates will be present,” said Morgan Spicer, a candidate for Atlantic Highlands Council. Her husband, Zack Brown, is her running mate on the Independent ticket.

“Yesterday the Republicans reached out to all six candidates to find an alternative that all six can feel comfortable with, ideally in person and in town. Again, we will participate in any debate in which all six candidates are present,” wrote Morgan Spicer.  

In a press release yesterday, the Republican candidates said, “Because we believe it critical to our Democracy to have in person debate with open dialogue between candidates and moderators, we respectfully declined the invitation with Marianne Kligman, spokesperson from the League of Women Voters Greater Red Bank Area today.” They continued “In discussions with the LWV, we had identified numerous terms that were not acceptable, including a lack of protections in place for a fair process.  The LWV proposed some changes, but unfortunately, they do not sufficiently address all of the concerns.”

Democratic Chairman Keelen later wrote: “We have not heard any specific reasons or concerns about an independently moderated forum with questions sourced from our neighbors. We suspect the Republican candidates were pressured by their party to withdraw, especially given recent actions of other Republican candidates, or they have a difficult time being decisive and keeping their word. The independent candidates seem to be following their lead. The Atlantic Highlands Democrats keep their word. We are prepared to participate in an independently moderated forum, but we won’t be coerced into doing this on their terms alone.”

Republican candidates James Murphy and Ellen O’Dwyer – Wood responding to questions from AHHerald about why they declined to participate said, “As for the lack of protection, LWV told us that the questions are not vetted to ensure the questions come from our residents.  This is a main concern to us, and we believe should be a concern to the rest of the voters.  In this current political climate, there is too much divisiveness and in our opinion a forum of this magnitude should be informative and not for entertainment.  
Next, we have been in a long dialog with the league about verbiage within the contract that made us uncomfortable; so much so that we had legal counsel review and give their opinion.  The attorney agreed with our concerns and made suggestions that we had forwarded to the league.  After several weeks of deliberation, we were not able to come to an agreement, therefore the two of us decided to respectfully decline the offer and propose another venue.  We were able to speak with both independents as well as one of the democratic candidates that said she speaks on behalf of her running mate, that they would be open to an in-person debate. 

“With that in mind, our decision was clear, that what was in the best interest of the Atlantic Highlands voters was to withdraw and conduct an in person townhall style forum.  It is our belief that this would be the best way to inform our residents of our positions and ensure that the questions being asked are directly a result of resident concerns.  This the only way to provide fair representation of all candidates. 

“We were very clear in our discussions with the other candidates, that we intended on this in-person forum being live streamed so that all residents had access to the candidates.  We had originally agreed to patriciate in the LWV forum but after reviewing the response forms and ground rules, began discussing our concerns with the league.  It was never our intention to back out of a promise made, however when all parties were not able to come to an agreement we were left with no choice.  We have been respectful to both LWV as well as the other candidates this entire process and are equally saddened by the divisively aggressive public comments being shared by some members of the democratic party.

“It is our hope that all candidates can put their political views aside and focus on what is best for our community. “

League spokeswoman, Marianne Kligman wrote to the Independent Candidates this morning upon learning they were withdrawing from the forum:

“We were very disheartened in your decision to pull out of Atlantic Highlands Borough Candidate’s forum.  The reason we, as volunteers of the League of Women Voters, devote so much time to this effort is because we fervently believe that our democracy can only work if people are informed about the people they elect to represent them. Perhaps you are not aware of how our forums run.  They are not debates between two or three parties. They are opportunities for each candidate to answer questions germane to the interests and needs of their constituents.  This was an opportunity to introduce yourselves to the public so they can make an informed choice of who they wish to make decisions about their lives. We strongly hope that you might reconsider your decision to participate.”Please be aware that it is the League’s policy not to have “Empty Chair forum” that is when only one party is present. So unless the Independents change their minds in appearing, this forum will not take place.”

League of Women Voters Forum

The League of Women Voters was established 101 years ago by helping to pass the 19th amendment. It is a non-partisan, activist, grassroots organization that believes voters should play a critical role in democracy, according to their website. 

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Avatar of Allan Dean

Allan Dean

Allan Dean is editor, publisher, and founder of the Atlantic Highlands Herald. Published since 1999 and selected in 2000 by the Borough of Atlantic Highlands as one of their official newspapers, making...

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