A records request from Councilman Jim Bean, asking for who gave and received gift cards as part of Hurricane Sandy relief in Belmar, was met with debate and disappointment from Mayor Matt Doherty.
At the previous Belmar Council meeting, Doherty and Bean debated the merits of Bean's Open Public Records Act request to itemize who donated gift cards to the borough for distribution, in what amounts, and who received them. Bean also sought the criterion the borough used to distribute the gift cards, and wanted the addresses of the people who donated and received the gift cards.
The gift cards ranged from local restaurants and home improvement stores to more all-purpose American Express or Mastercard gift cards, Doherty said. Tens of thousands of dollars in gift cards were donated, some anonymously.
But the mayor didn't understand the intention behind Bean's request, saying it went too far and was inappropriate.
Bean said he is only seeking information and is simply aiming for more open government and accountability.
The two men kept repeating questions and responses to each other as part of the debate, with the mayor asking "Why do you want the names and addresses of the people who donated and received gift cards? You even want the addresses, why?"
Bean responded to the repeated question similarly: "I'm just trying to get information, to hold government accountable."
The councilman saw the potential for problems in that local government officials were accepting donations and then handing them out. A list of who gave and received could ward off any problems or criticisms, Bean said.
"What I believe is all those gift cards we receive as government should have been given away to church to distribute," Bean said. "I don’t believe government officials should be making criterion for handing out those things."
Doherty said he understands the intention, but did not agree with asking for the addresses of those who received donated gift cards and for what amount.
"I just want to make sure we have a list of what came in and what went out," Bean said. "I want to make sure everything that came in to us also went out. This is just trying to get accountability of what came in."
The mayor asked, what if someone donated anonymously or didn't realize their donation would be made public? What if a block of donations were handed over to a group to donate or donated by a group?
"Then put down 'Anonymous'" Bean agreed. "List the name of the group...This is just a request for information."
Doherty, a Democrat, asked the lone Republican councilman whether this request was for some other purpose. "Could this be used to embarrass someone?" said the mayor. He was disappointed in the request for addresses in particular. "I'm not happy at all about that. I don’t think its appropriate. If the press asks, I’d be hesitant to give it to them."
Doherty added the OPRA request could have a chilling effect on future generosity.
"My concern is, by requiring people to give names and addresses if they donate and if they are eligible, I think it would dissuade people in the future," said the mayor.
"Why do you get upset with these questions?" asked Bean. "I just want information to hold government accountable."
Less troublesome than the names and addresses was providing Bean with a copy of the criteria used to distribute the gift cards. Belmar has a list of individuals still without power after 5 p.m. Nov. 12, and those people were distributed the aid based on more than two weeks without electricity, Doherty said.
A large block of gift cards was sent to Belmar Elementary School for distribution, and the senior housing development residents received donations as residency there is based on income guidelines, said the mayor.
Kelly Williams, in charge of the borough social services department, handed out the donations according to state Department of Community Affairs guidelines, said the mayor.
"We don’t tell her who to give to or who to not give to. There’s a criteria for it. You're welcome to reach out to her," Doherty said. "She's a professional. Are you saying you suspect her of wrongdoing, is that why you are requesting this info?"
Bean said his only intention is to have more information available. "You are privy to things I am not," Bean said to the mayor. "I've asked lots of questions. That's all this is."
Bean agreed to extend his OPRA request through Jan. 8, as law only allows record keepers a certain time frame to respond.
"I'm making sure everything donated is given out properly," Bean said.
Doherty responded: "I can assure you it is, but I understand why you'd ask that...But why do you want people who received need to be accountable?"
Bean answered: "No, not those who received. I want to hold the municipality accountable. We’re just making sure."