By Phil Stilton
TOMS RIVER – During a special meeting of the Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education on Tuesday, members of the “Clean Slate” team completed the job Board President Ben Giovine stated he was elected to perform: the ouster of Gilmore and Monahan, a township-based law firm with strong Ocean County Republican ties.
After over three hours of deliberation in a closed executive session meeting, the board took to the stage in the auditorium of Toms River High School North to once and for all “End the Ritacco Era,” the main slogan of their two year election cycle which gave the political action committee their voting majority on the board.
Some in attendance criticized the board’s choice of a replacement, claiming political motives were in play in the decision making process when Mr. Giovine, the “Clean Slate” bloc’s de-facto leader, a former field organizer for the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, chose the law firm of Carlucio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle and Sacks (CLDDS). The firm is known as a long-time financial backer of Democrat party candidates in Ocean County, leading some to claim the Clean Slate team just replaced one political power broker with another political power broker on the other side of the aisle.
The board made their decision from eight firms who applied for the position:
- Campbell and Pruchnik – A Middletown firm specializing in school, education and public sector law.
- Carlucio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle and Sacks (CLDDS) – A Toms River general “full-service” law firm with strong political ties to Democrats in Ocean County.
- Corrigan Law Firm – A Keyport based labor and employment lawyer.
- Gilmore and Monahan – Longtime Toms River School District legal counsel, cited as number 11 on Politicker.com’s “Most Powerful Law Firms” in New Jersey. Attorney George Gilmore is also chairman of the Ocean County Republican Club.
- Kenney, Gross, Kovats and Parton – A real estate and family law firm in Red Bank.
- Montenegro, Thompson, Montenegro and Genz – Brick Township law firm.
- Schenck, Price, Smith and King – A Paramus based law firm with 40 years of school board counsel experience. Several of their team were past presidents of the New Jersey Association of School Attorneys and regular guests of the NJ Jersey School Board Association’s talk radio show.
- Schwartz, Simon, Edelstein and Celso – A Morristown based firm specializing in school board management, representing over 80 New Jersey school districts.
Accusations of political patronage were levied against the “Clean Slate” team in the open public session portion of the meeting.
Linda Garvey, who served as a school board member in Toms River for 18 years, ending with her choice to not run for re-election in 2011, accused the “Clean Slate” team of politicking.
“First, I want to congratulate Mr. Giovine for being elected board president, although this is the first time in at least 20 years I’ve seen anyone given that responsibility with only one year of experience,” she said. “I totally agree with the decision to appoint someone other than Mr. Monahan as board attorney – as board president I was an advocate of making such a move.”
Ms. Garvey then told the board she felt Monahan is an excellent attorney but that the board needed a change due to the firm’s associations in politics.
She then criticized the Clean Slate team for letting politics influence their decision to appoint the law firm for 2013.
“This is almost laughable in Toms River, but school board is supposed to be non-partisan. I complained about that for 18 years,” the former board president said. “I have a problem with that for many reasons, not the least of which is that they are very involved in politics, shall we say, on the other side of the aisle.
“It’s pretty obvious to me that this election was not about putting an end to the Ritacco era, but it was about ending the Republican era,” Ms. Garvey continued, accusing the firm assisted Mr. Giovine in his 2011 election campaign, his first.
She then produced a photograph of influential Ocean County Democrat and political consultant Mitchell Seim with school board members Ben Giovine, Alex Pavliv and Loreen Torone. Mr. Seim also worked as a field operative for the New Jersey State Democratic Committee. Ms. Garvey claimed the photo was taken from Seim’s Facebook page.
Before stepping down, she also criticized Mr. Giovine’s relationship with CLDDS firm partner Stephan Leone.
“Since you brought up the issue of my relationship with Mr. Leone, you left out that he also interviewed me when I was in 11th grade to attend Columbia University and I sold candy to him as a child with the local soccer team,” Giovine replied. “The relationship between myself and Mr. Leone is nothing more than as a neighbor.”
Toms River resident Carol Benson asked Mr. Giovine if any of the appointees had given any financial contributions to the “Clean Slate” team in previous elections. The board president explained to Ms. Benson the campaign finance laws, but did not offer an answer to the question.
“The Clean Slate team had many different donors and folks that would contribute,” he said,” but I’m just saying the the ELEC forms is the best representation of what was contributed and where money was spent.”
Betty Vasil, township resident, former board president and current clerk for the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholders, asked for clarification of Ms. Benson’s question regarding contributions and asked Mr. Giovine about contributions not eligible to be reported under state campaign finance laws, including donations under $300.
“The question remains, did any of the professionals you are appointing make any contributions under the amount [needed to report]?” she asked. Mr. Giovine did not answer and deferred the answer to Joseph Torrone who snapped, “no!”
“I resent the idea that you are implying that our votes are for sale,” quipped “Clean Slate” member Ginny Rhine.
“I’m just asking a question. I’m asking if you received contributions from the appointed, I’m not implying anything other than that,” Ms. Vasil responded.
“I understand, but I just find that offensive,” Ms. Rhine said with a laugh and smile.
“So can you answer the question?” Ms. Vasil asked.
“I don’t have the list with me, so I don’t know exactly who,” Ms. Rhine replied.
“I understand, thank you,” Ms. Vasil said as she left the podium.
When the public portion of the meeting was closed, the board voted on the resolution to appoint Carluccio, Leone, Dimon, Doyle and Sacks (CLDDS) as general counsel for the school district.
“As I spoke inside, the firm of Leone is a prestigious firm in this area,” said board member Ed Gearity. “But, unfortunately, they have no experience in the last eight or ten years as school board attorneys or in special education, so, I’m sorry, I cannot vote for them.”
Board member Tom Baxter also voted no. All “Clean Slate” team board members all voted yes.
The board then voted to approve Gilmore and Monahan to handle existing open cases subject to the approval of the superintendent, business administrator and board of education. The board voted unanimously on the resolution.