Belmar Mayor Matt Doherty said, “Ken Pringle is like a jaded ex-girlfriend who won’t go away.”
Ken Pringle, who was mayor of the oceanfront borough for 20 years before Doherty took over in 2011, isn’t sure how many times he’s sued Doherty and the borough since he left office. “Four or five, I’m not sure.”
Both Doherty and Pringle, who served together for four years, are Democrats. Doherty was a councilman during Pringle’s last term as mayor.
At issue is the beachfront and money.
Pringle contends that Doherty and the Council are using the Beach Utility Fund to subsidize borough operations and to keep property taxes artificially low, in violation of the Public Trust Doctrine. Doherty says that while Pringle was mayor Belmar’s property taxpayers subsidized the beach and that Pringle raised taxes 14 years in a row. Doherty has not increased Belmar’s taxes since becoming mayor, keeping the borough’s spending flat at 2010 levels.
Pringle is the attorney of record in a new suit, either the 5th or 6th he’s brought against the borough since leaving office, which was filed on May 1. The eight plaintiffs include former Republican Councilman Jim Bean, Doherty’s unsuccessful opponent in last year’s election, Michael Seebeck a two time Republican candidate for council who ran with Bean last year, and Joy DeSanctis, Bean and Seebeck’s campaign manager last year. Three of the plaintiffs are not Belmar residents.
Pringle said he did not recruit the plaintiffs. Bean says he doesn’t know the non-residents plaintiffs and has never met them. Bean said he emailed Pringle “a while back” complaining about how the proceeds of the post-Sandy Buy a Board fundraising campaign to rebuild the beachfront boardwalk were being spent and asked if anything could be done. Bean said Pringle latter reached out to him to join the most recent suit.
In the 10 count complaint that Pringle filed this month, it is contended that Belmar raided its Beach Utility Fund to pay off engineering bills generated from 2011-2013 in a settlement with the successor to Birdsall Engineering. The payment which was made in February of this year for less than $1 million on over $1.3 million billed came from the Beach Utility fund. Pringle’s suit contends that that Belmar violated the Public Trust Doctrine and case law because only a portion of the engineering work was beach related and that the borough has not yet repaid the Beach Utility Fund.
Doherty scoffed at this allegation. “This is how municipal government works,” the mayor said, “and Pringle knows it. Belmar did the same type of thing while Pringle was mayor and we have the same Chief Financial Officer that he had. Pringle could have resolved this question with a phone call instead of by filing a lawsuit that asks the taxpayers of Belmar to pay his legal fees.”
Doherty said that that the engineering settlement will be allocated to the proper accounts, was always going to be allocated to the proper accounts and that the CFO, Robbin Kirk, has until the end of the year to balance the books.
“It’s been three months and some of these bills went back to 2011,” Pringle said while disputing that issue could have been resolved with a phone call. “They (the borough) don’t have the money to balance their budget.
Pringle also alleged that Kirk is not allowed to speak with him unless the Borough Administrator or another official is present for the conversation. “She wasn’t even allowed to call to inform me that Councilman Macgovern’s wife had died,” Pringle said on the phone last evening.
“That’s ridiculous,” Doherty said, “any resident can call the CFO. This is a politically motivated frivolous lawsuit brought by the ex-mayor on behalf of Republicans who can’t win an election.”
In addition to properly allocating the engineering fees, Pringle’s suit seeks to have a recently passed borough ordinance that doubled parking fees on the beach side of Ocean Ave from $1 to $2 per hour, without imposing parking fees on the west side of Ocean Ave or in residential areas of the borough declared invalid and to allocate the over $700,000 that Belmar raised through the Buy a Board campaign entirely to the Beach Utility Fund.
Pringle said that what Belmar is doing is analogous to an attorney using funds in his/her Trust Account—client’s money—to pay other bills—a disbar able offense. Doherty scoffed at the allegation. “The Beach Utility, Parking Utility and Water Utility are all part of the Borough’s budget that is approved annually by the Department of Community of Affairs. The CFO allocates the expenses to the appropriate accounts.”
Doherty referred to a May 2012 Asbury Press article that is published on NJ.com to support his contention that Belmar is managing the finances of its Beach Utility and the Borough appropriately.
In that article about beach badges and other access fees, Ronald Chen, the state’s Public Advocate during the Corzine Administration who often brought suit against beachfront communities to protect the public’s right to equal access to the ocean, specifically cited Belmar as a community that is doing it right.
Belmar is one of the few towns that follows the court mandate. It continues to outline in great detail what it spends on beach operations, down to parking meter maintenance and landfill costs for garbage disposal.
“Belmar is engaging in open, transparent government,” Chen said.
Pringle denied he has any personal or political animus towards Doherty. “I’m passionate about the beach and the Public Trust Doctrine,” Pringle said.
“The case that required beachfront towns to separate beach access fees from municipal budgets was the best thing that ever happened to Belmar. When I took office in 1990 the beach and boardwalk were run down and the amenities were substandard.”
Pringle said that by following the law his administration revitalized the Belmar beachfront and enabled a surge in property values.
Doherty said that Pringle raised property taxes 14 times and that under his administration the borough’s taxpayers were subsidizing the beach during Pringle’s tenure.
“Now Pringle wants the taxpayers of Belmar to pay his legal fees for this politically motivated and frivolous lawsuit,” Doherty said.