Moorestown loosens limits on political donations

Posted: August 21, 2013

Despite the vigorous objections of a dozen speakers, the Moorestown Township Council voted Monday to increase significantly the size of donations firms doing or seeking business with the town may give to political candidates and parties.

Critics urged the council not to dilute the town's stringent pay-to-play rules, enacted five years ago, but Republican council members said the ordinance brings the town in line with state rules and is less confusing.

No one in the audience of about 35 appeared to accept the argument.

"This is an attempt to legalize corruption," resident Mark Singer told the council.

"I think [it] really corrupts the bidding process," said another, Joseph Ponessa.

"I guess I'm confused as to why anybody thinks this is needed," said resident Mary McMahon.

All four Republican council members voted for the change, including Mayor Stacey Jordan, who took part via speaker phone.

The lone vote against came from Democrat Greg Newcomer, who asked the council to table a vote in light of public objections. His motion did not get a second.

The ordinance increases from $300 to $2,600 the annual amount firms holding contracts with the municipal government may give to officeholders and candidates.

It also increases from $300 to $7,200 the amount that firms holding contracts may donate to Moorestown political parties in any year, and from $500 to $7,200 what they may give to any political action committee.

"I think we know what this is about," said Mark Hines, a resident who identified himself as active in the Democratic Party. "It's to loosen up the money flow. . . . It's not in the interest of citizens; it's in the interest of political parties and that alone."

Hines' remarks irked Deputy Mayor Chris Chiacchio, who said he appeared to suggest that vendors were "buying their way into our town."

Township contracts are awarded to vendors on the basis of "their credentials, expertise, background, and work ethic," he said, and to suggest otherwise "demeans" them. "Shame on you," Chiacchio said.

Hines said he "did not make any mention of our solicitor," Anthony Drollas Jr., who drafted the ordinance.

Drollas is a partner in the law firm of Capehart Skatchard, which last year donated $10,400 to the political campaigns of Republican Freeholders Bruce Garganio and Mary Ann O'Brien. They in turn gave nearly all the money to the campaigns of three Republican candidates seeking seats on the Moorestown council, a practice known as "wheeling."

Two of those candidates, Victoria Napolitano and Phil Garwood, won election, and in January voted along with the other Republicans on the council to name Capehart as the town's counsel.

Capehart's de facto donation to local candidates via the freeholder candidates was legal under state law and Moorestown's ordinances. Garganio and O'Brien lost their reelection bids.

Robert Gorman, Moorestown's Democratic municipal chairman, said outside the meeting that a bipartisan group of residents, including himself, was organizing a petition drive to put the pay-to-play ordinance on the November ballot as a referendum.

"We need to collect 1,000 signatures in 20 days," said Gorman, adding that his group would seek petition signatures Wednesday outside the Community House.


Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@phillynews.com.

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