Mayor Andrew Lucas’s farmland preservation application was once again a topic of discussion at the Monmouth County Freeholder meeting on June 23. The meeting took place at Neptune City Municipal Building and was attended by several Manalapan residents who addressed the board. Those who spoke included former Mayor George Spodak and Committeewoman Michelle Roth, as well as several residents. Freeholders Lillian Burry, Amy Mallet, and John Curley also weighed in on the discussion.
Prior to public comment, Freeholders Burry and Mallet had a brief debate about the role of the appraiser James Stuart who sits on the Monmouth County Agriculture Development Board. Stuart appraised Lucas’ 96 acre parcel, known as Burke Farm, and recused himself from the . Both Mallet and Committeewoman Roth have questioned Stuart’s role in Lucas’ appraisal, and say that he has exhibited a conflict of interest by voting on other properties that he has appraised.
“You weren’t there; you sent a letter of rejection. I was there. And I think it’s really unfortunate that you don’t understand the whole process,” Burry said to Mallet.
“You (Stuart) can’t be objective when you’ve been part of the process of doing the work. There is a conflict,” Mallet responded.
Spodak, who criticized Lucas during the June 15 Township Committee meeting, addressed the freeholders. “I want to let you know that the residents of Manalapan are not ignorant,” said Spodak in response to a comment Burry made on June 1. “We know what’s going on; we’re not stupid people.”
Burry clarified the June 1 remark she made about the public’s “ignorance” of farmland preservation, which she explained was meant to mean ignorance of the farmland preservation process and the fact that it is a state regulated program which ensures ethics.
Spodak also criticized Burry for addressing the MCADB prior to their vote to advance Lucas’ application. Burry said that she has a right to be at the meeting since she is a liaison to that board and was speaking generally and in favor of preservation.
Spodak said that Lucas is not a long-time owner of the farmland and flipped the land into preservation within nine days, possibly earning a profit on the deal.
“You should not be paying for a private deal with public money; that’s outrageous,” Spodak said. “This is a scam that he’s perpetrating on our county, on our state, and on my town.”
“It’s not a Republican or Democrat issue; it’s a taxpayer issue,” said Curley. “Because I voted in favor of it, if I have been hoodwinked, you can be damn straight that it’s going to be reversed.”
Mallet declared that there is information implicating Lucas and that the proof will eventually be uncovered.
Ultimately, Curley demanded that Lucas reveal to the board the exact amount he paid to purchase the property.
Patch reached out to Mayor Lucas for a reaction to Curley's demand.
“Although it may have been smarter for Mr. Curley to call for an investigation before he voted to approve the farmland preservation application, I am glad he has taken such a particular interest in the application,” wrote Lucas in an email. “While I am certain it will be a waste of taxpayer money, I will cooperate fully with any investigation conducted by the County Prosecutor's Office, the US Attorney’s office or the State Ethics board as nothing illegal or unethical was done, and I will be happy to demonstrate that once more.”
Manalapan Committeewoman Michelle Roth was the last speaker to address the freeholders. She reminded the board that Monmouth County will fund 24 percent of the $1,152,000 in taxpayer money provided to Lucas to finance his farm. Roth also refuted a remark Burry had made about the sale being public information.
“This [title and sale] is hidden under a corporate veil [Diamond Developers]. So as Deputy Director Curley stated earlier, there is no disclosure on this because he [Lucas] keeps saying this is a private deal,” she said.
Roth said that there was ignorance on the part of the Freeholders, and that they didn’t have all their facts straight when they voted on the application.
Citing information she has found on the county clerk website and the township planning board, Roth has found that Diamond Developers showed signs of financial distress in 2008, but the property didn’t appear on the township target list for preservation until Lucas became Mayor. She remains suspicious of Committeeman Don Holland’s role in this process, since he worked on Lucas’ application from start to finish and served on the Township Planning Board in 2008.
“What I do notice from Mr. Stuart, Mr. Lucas and Mrs. Burry is that they don’t dispute any of the charges. They do, however, cry politics every time somebody gets caught doing the wrong thing. You call it politics. I call it a demand for transparency and good government,” said Roth.
Roth then turned her focus to Stuart and what she calls his "serious conflict of interest."
“To my understanding of local government ethics law – he’s violated it in the most grievous of ways,” said Roth. She added that he also voted on the county target list which identifies properties that need appraisals.
“I’m extremely disappointed and surprised that an investigation over Mr. Stuart’s behavior has not yet been initiated,” she said, concluding her remarks.
Burry responded in fury at Roth's remarks for making "the inference that [she had] something to do with all of this."
The board motioned to adjourn immediately following their exchange; at that point, the public portion of the meeting had lasted three hours.