Bay Avenue Community Center in Manahawkin Open to All Political Activities

Oct 03, 2018

From now on, any individual or organization may rightfully use Stafford Township’s Bay Avenue Community Center for political purposes, including campaign fundraising, without necessarily inviting members of opposing parties to attend and/or participate.

Some Stafford residents had raised questions about the legality of using the community center for such events, with regard to the town’s policy that an invitation be extended to all parties, so Township Attorney Jerry Dasti looked into it and issued a legal opinion, which he read aloud. at the town council meeting on Sept. 25.

Resident and council candidate Paul Krier had wondered if the use of the facility for political events violates stated township policy, especially given its construction was paid for, in part, with federal funding. Krier cited occasions when requests had been approved for the New Jersey Organizing Project (a nonprofit, community-focused, issues-based group that does political and legislative work not affiliated with a given party), but denied for a Republican “Candidates Night” sponsored by the Beach Haven West Civic Association, on the grounds that all candidates should be invited.

Administrator Jim Moran later clarified that the “invite everyone” policy, though informal, also prohibits one-sided campaign events within 60 days of an election. “It’s all about providing equal time,” he said.

More recently, the Democrats running in the general election wanted to use the space for a meet-the-candidates-style event in the form of an ice cream social.

Suddenly Moran found himself acting the part of referee on First Amendment issues, which he had no interest in doing, he said.

Dasti’s assertion was political activities and fundraisers do not violate any policy or code. “In fact, the code allows such activities as an exemption to the general prohibition against soliciting or accepting political contributions,” he said. While there are no federal or state provisions, the township itself has endeavored to regulate such activities as a matter of policy to promote fairness, he explained.

“It is my opinion the township is attempting to regulate in the conduct of affairs in which it does not belong,” Dasti said. Freedom of association and speech are abridged by a condition of use that requires inclusion of opposing groups, he said.

“The freedom of association also carries with it the freedom not to associate,” his letter stated. Requiring invitations to all “exposes the township to the very legal entanglements it wishes to avoid in the first place.”

His recommendation was the township should develop a policy that allows any individual or organization to use its facilities for any activities not otherwise unlawful.

The council then formally adopted Dasti’s legal opinion and directed the administrator and attorney to prepare rules and regulations to implement his recommendations.

Moran maintained “we will always encourage candidates’ forums to include all parties.”

Beach Haven West Civic Association President Dawn Papatheodorou said she doesn't count the council’s move as a “victory” so much as “what they should have done originally.” The association will host a meet-the-candidates night, for all candidates, on Oct. 19.

— Victoria Ford

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