Suit Pits Democratic Group Against County Committee
As campaign season starts, Democrats for Change files complaint against the Ocean County Democratic Committee over bylaws vote
As local municipal elections draw closer, a group of Democrats in Ocean County is stirring the pot of internal party politics with a civil suit against the Ocean County Democratic Committee for what it claims was a violation of the committee’s own bylaws more than a year ago.
County organization Democrats for Change filed a complaint in State Superior Court in Toms River last month against the committee, claiming that party leaders violated their own rules when, in April 2010, they held a vote to extend term limits for committee members from two to four years.
Marianne Clemente of Barnegat, one of five plaintiffs named in the complaint, said it was an issue of transparency and of failed leadership.
“We’re trying to have an open and transparent government, and we’re trying to do the right thing,” Clemente said. “That’s what we’re all about."
Also bringing the suit are Britta Forsberg-Wenzel of Lavallette, Barry Bendar of Forked River, Sheila McVeigh of Toms River and Karen Argenti of Whiting.
The plaintiffs claim that the top Democrats were required to consider the term limit rule change at two meetings: one where the change was introduced and a second where the actual vote was taken. Instead, the complaint says, party leaders announced the term limit amendment and voted on it right away, also without checking to make sure the required number of committee members were present.
They want the amendment reversed and are seeking reimbursement for legal fees.
The complaint hinges on the allegation of improper procedure, but Clemente said the extension of term limits was wrong in and of itself. It’s important to have the opportunity for turnover within the committee, she said, especially following the surge in registered Democrats seen in Ocean County following the 2008 elections. Clemente said Democrats for Change believes local leaders haven’t done enough to harness their energy, and should be ousted.
But by changing the rules to give themselves more time in office, she said, “they’re stifling the participation of the people.”
Ocean County Democratic Committee Vice Chair Marta Harrison called the complaint factually wrong, and said the plaintiffs are not doing Democrats in Ocean County any favors with the suit.
The committee gave its members proper notice of the vote via a mailing, said Harrison, who characterized the complaint as a sour-grapes move by a group that tried and failed to gain party leadership last year.
“Whatever wrong they think was done was a year and a half ago,” Harrison said. “They should have brought it up in a timely manner.”
Instead, they chose a time that would be damaging to the party as a whole, she said.
“This is no time to be fighting over technicalities in our bylaws and internal politics,” she said. “We’re in a general election season. To bring it up in the three-month period when every good Democrat is focused on winning races in November is irresponsible.”
The complaint raises other allegations, too, including the accusation that Mitchell Seim, the campaign manager for Harrison and Committee Chairman Wyatt Earp during their chairmanship run last year, moved in Harrison's mother's Lakewood home so that he could become a committee member and vote for Earp and Harrison.
Harrison flatly denied and wrongdoing by Seim, saying he was legally registered.
And Harrison said the assertion that a shift to four-year terms for party officials somehow hinders party participation is wrong. If anything, she said, two-year terms present an unwanted hassle for committeemembers, who must gather petition signatures each time they run.
"We think the energy would be better used to recruit volunteers to help with elections," she said.
Clemente said Democrats for Change was committed to helping local party members get elected, particularly in upcoming races where they see a real chance for a victory, such as in Lacey, Brick and Toms River. She said the group simply wanted to see county party leadership do more to mobilize voters, and extending party term limits and circumventing bylaws isn’t the right way to achieve that.
“Everything is held close to the vest – that’s the old way of doing things,” Clemente said. “We need to change that. We need to wake up the Democrats in Ocean County so that we can take our rightful place.”