Democratic Committeewoman Michelle Roth had plenty to say to Mayor Andrew Lucas during the public portion of the Township Committee meeting on Wednesday, and not much of it was positive.
Roth has repeatedly criticized Lucas for not recusing himself from a Jan. 12 vote, which authorized the cancellation of 2011 preliminary taxes on properties that included farmland. According to Roth, Lucas gave himself a $25,000 tax break by voting for the resolution.
Lucas admitted that he should have recused himself from the vote, and said that at the time, he did not realize that the block number and lot of his acquired property were in the resolution. A resolution to reauthorize was added to the Feb. 23 agenda under old business.
“I will admit, I did make a mistake. I did not see this on the resolution. And so we have to vote on it again. For that I apologize to the Township Committee for what will probably be a very unbearable amount of time in listening to this issue get replayed and replayed again and again,” said Lucas. His remark was directed at Roth, who keeps revisiting the matter.
Roth argued that the items were “very clearly delineated” and accused the Mayor of “twisting the truth”.
The issue stems from an ethical controversy surrounding property that Lucas bought in March 2010; Lucas asserts that he did nothing wrong.
In March 2010, Lucas and his wife purchased 96 acres of property in Manalapan known has Burke Farm at Iron Ore Road, which had 9 houses slated for development. According to Lucas, he decided to take the land out of development and preserve it as farmland.
The process may be legal, but according to Roth, it is highly unethical.
“That property went into distress. It went up for tax sale. You saw a business opportunity; that's great. What you’re not telling the public is that you fast-tracked the project in nine days,” Roth said to Lucas.
According to Roth, the property is listed under the ownership of a private company and therefore, Lucas was able to avoid disclosing the sale information to the public.
She believes that the company, Diamond Developers, was facing bankruptcy, when Lucas made an offer on the property on a tax sale.
Lucas, who owns a stake in Diamond Developers, then moved the property into the Farmland Preservation Program within nine days of purchase.
During their debate, Lucas defended his actions, stating that they were legal. He said that Manalapan officials have preserved farmland in the past.
In October 2010, the News Transcript reported that under the New Jersey Farmland Preservation Act, a combination of state, county, and local funding is used to subsidize the purchase the development rights to a farm. At the local level, the township pays 16 percent of the cost to the development rights to the landowner; Lucas stands to gain a $1 million reward in taxpayer money in this process.
“I’d like to know where the other 40,000 residents of this Township get to sign up for a deal like that,” said Roth, who is a financial consultant.
Last October, Lucas’s actions were also criticized by two, former Manalapan mayors and scrutinized in the Asbury Park Press. Roth cited an article that criticized the Mayor for not pulling his property from the program and creating a conflict-of-interest as an elected official.
Roth argues that Lucas, who is also a financial consultant, schemed a quick deal and said she doesn't appreciate the Mayor's "condescending attitude" when she revisits the issue.
“I bring it up because it’s wrong. You shouldn’t have done it, and you’ve yet to apologize for your action,” she said. “You violated the public trust, period,” she later added.
“There’s no sense in me making any more comments. I’m wasting the taxpayers’ time on this,” said Lucas.
The lively exchange concluded as no other Committee members commented.
Lucas called a motion and the resolution was approved 3-1 with Roth’s dissent and Lucas recusing himself from the vote.