For a town of 16,000, South Orange municipal election campaigns have been raising some relatively big dollars and attracting some larger single donations in recent years, and this year’s race could potentially raise the campaign funding stakes — with both the Village President position and three seats on the Board of Trustees being contested.
- Village President Sheena Collum is running for re-election.
- Trustee Deborah Davis Ford is challenging Collum for Village President and running as the SOForward campaign with Trustee candidates Stacey Borden, Ed Grossi and Matt Wonski.
- Bob Zuckerman, Donna Coallier and Summer Jones are running together for Trustee seats as the “Your Voice, Our Village” campaign.
- Bobby Brown, Toshie Davis and Ed Moore are running together under the “Think Work Thrive Together” banner for positions as Village Trustees.
Note that, although candidates can campaign together as a “ticket,” voters get to select individuals on the ballot. Election day is May 14.
Following the money
The “SO Forward” campaign of Deborah Davis Ford for VP and her three running mates for BOT — Stacey Borden, Matt Wonski and Ed Grossi — raised some eyebrows with a fundraising event on March 26 that advertised individual tickets ranging from $125 to $6,400. (See the event invitation here.) Davis Ford told Village Green that the campaign will be mostly relying on small contributions from residents, but also defended the large “ask” as being clearly within legal limits.
“Our campaign will not be soliciting or accepting PAC [political action committee] monies,” wrote Davis Ford in response to a query from Village Green. “In addition, NJ ELEC regulations are clear on contribution limits. No one has yet contributed the maximum donation allowed. It’s our duty as a campaign organization to remind or inform potential donors of the campaign law regarding donations. We have, and will, continue to rely on our strong dedicated South Orange resident donors who have given us $200.00 or less.”
The NJ Election Law Enforcement Commission states that the limit on individual contributions is $7,200.
According to a search of ELEC filings the largest single reported contribution to date for a South Orange election has been $5633,10, contributed by resident and property owner Elaine Harris to the “Village First” slate of Geraldine Mehu, Joseph Kika and Kelly Sullivan in 2013. The next largest appears to be from Stuart Wainberg, who owns 75 South Orange Avenue; Wainberg contributed $2,500 to Nureed Saeed’s bid for BOT in 2017. (Saeed, who lost her bid by a mere 20 votes, stated that Wainberg’s contribution would not impact her decisions on development. Wainberg later sued the Township in an effort to stop the development of the former Village Hall as a restaurant venue.)
The next largest contribution appears to be $2,244.18 from Alma Anderson to Village First in 2013. Numerous contributions over $1,000 have been recorded over the years. Notably, the “SO 2015” campaign of Collum, Davis Ford, Howard Levison and Mark Rosner returned $750 of a contribution from resident Elnardo Webster to their 2015 campaign when they later found that he would be representing development clients before the Township.
Searching ELEC forms, Village Green found that Webster, now a former resident, had made a contribution of $1,000 to the SO 2015 campaign. His firm Inglesino, Webster & Wyciskala had also contributed $500. Although neither was representing a downtown development project at the time of the contribution, Webster later represented Landmark Realty in its proposal for the redevelopment of Village Hall. According to SO 2015 campaign treasurer Michael Auer, $750 of Webster’s contribution was returned. Auer told Village Green, “After the election was completed, the candidates were made aware that he may be representing a client and asked me to return $750 to him which I did and sent an amended form to the State putting his family below the reportable limit contribution.”
Two weeks ago, Collum posted a statement on Facebook declaring that she would not be accepting PAC money. Her statement also addressed the issue of sourcing money and pay-to-play.
“This campaign is not accepting money or donations from developers or their agents doing business in our town (i.e. attorneys who represent them or their hired consultants assisting them in trying to advance multi-million dollar projects, etc.). For my first VP race, we returned many checks because I was uncomfortable. … While support is always appreciated, I’m not naive in the fact that strings are always attached,” wrote Collum.
Collum also stated that she was rejecting PAC money because “I believe there needs to be transparency in where money comes from. … PACs are used to hide money – where it comes from and where it’s being expended.” Collum did add, “There’s nothing wrong with coalescing with others who share your objective and working towards creating a governing body that may support whatever that objective is – just be open about it – don’t operate in the shadows.”
Collum also stated that her campaign would not accept money from those seeking professional service contracts from the Village — consistent with the Township’s “very aggressive” Pay to Play ordinance. “This also means you can’t ask someone else to donate on your behalf with a ‘wink.’ If you do this, you will banned for one year from submitting any responses to RFPs and RFQs for professional services in town. Not worth it for me or you.”
Village Green reached out to the other candidates to ask if they had statements to share.
Zuckerman, Coallier and Jones of “Your Voice, Our Village,” responded with the following: “As we watch one of our opposing big-money slates, it can feel a bit like we are the David to their well-funded, Goliath-sized team. Daunting, yes, but the Your Voice, Our Village team is pressing on, and we plan to do so without PAC money or outside forces looking for special favors. We are confident that our network of supporters will help us to do just that – with full transparency, even with a lack of big-money backers.”
The campaign of Brown, Davis & Moore sent the following response from campaign manager Michael Parlapiano: “We are clear that we will not accept any donations that could create any conflicts of interest for our candidates when they are on the BOT and prevent them from fully participating in any debates or votes. This might mean rejecting contributions from individuals, businesses, or PACs. We are focused on listening to our neighbors and asking for small contributions – campaigns are expensive.”
According to ELEC guidelines, candidates need to file Form C-1 when a candidate or candidates receive “a currency contribution, regardless of the amount. Also, Form C-1 is filed for contributions (monetary, in-kind, or loan) in excess of $300 in the aggregate from one source in an election. This report is filed 29 days and 11 days before the election and 20 days after the election. Form C-1 is also filed when a candidate receives a contribution in excess of $1,600.”
The first C-1 filing deadline should be on our about April 15. To search ELEC, visit https://www.elec.state.nj.us/publicinformation/viewreports.htm