Cherry Hill Republicans on Monday night challenged plans by the township to bid on Woodcrest Country Club, questioning Mayor Chuck Cahn's support for a public purchase of the bankrupt golf course after receiving thousands of dollars in political donations from board members of the club's main creditor.
Cahn, who became mayor in January 2012, received more than $16,000 in campaign contributions from members of the Brown family, some of whom serve on the board of directors of Sun Bank, according to election filings. He also received a $1,000 donation from Sun Bank.
The Cherry Hill club owes the bank more than $11 million, and most of the money from its sale - the course is scheduled to be auctioned Monday - will go toward repaying the bank, Stephen Cohen, a Republican running for a seat on the Township Council, said at Monday's council meeting.
"I'm not suggesting there's a quid pro quo here," Cohen said. "But there might be an appearance of a conflict of interest."
Cohen said Cahn, a former Woodcrest member, had represented the bank's interests when he was appointed in 2010 as the head of a transition committee tasked with managing the club, which was struggling to pay its bills.
Cahn was not at the meeting. He is on vacation, spokeswoman Bridget Palmer said.
Cohen and others who spoke - among them other Republicans running for council - asked whether council members had examined the mayor's interests in the club. They also asked how the township could afford the course, which will cost at least $6.5 million, and how it could bid public money at an auction the public will not be able to attend.
Cherry Hill plans to partner with Camden County in bidding, and any expenditure of township funds will require the council's approval, said Council President David Fleisher.
The council passed a resolution at the meeting authorizing Cahn and Solicitor Robert Wright to take action to support the county in a bid for the club. According to the township, freeholders will decide this week whether the county can participate in the auction.
The township and county have money in open-space funds that "could certainly be a potential source of funding - if we get to that point," Fleisher said.
The county is waiting for the results of an appraisal, spokesman Dan Keashen said last week. The 155-acre property was assessed this year at $5.4 million, according to county tax records.
Fleisher said Cahn and council members - all Democrats - "will be undeterred in fighting to keep the Woodcrest Country Club as open space."
In a statement read earlier in the meeting, Cahn said he was committed to "preserving the few environmental assets we have left in this township."
"The ideal scenario would be to see a private entity buy the property" and run it as a golf course, Cahn said in the statement. But "I, for one, am not willing to risk 155 acres of land" and "thousands of families" who live near the course.
The club filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last year and did not open this season.
A Marlton real estate group has entered into an agreement to buy the course for $6.25 million. A subsidiary of First Montgomery Group, which has developed apartments, the group has said through its attorney that it would not continue Woodcrest as a golf course.
Cahn has said the group told the township that it would not seek to change the property's institutional zoning.
Other potential bidders include the Union League and former Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski, who is interested in keeping the club a golf course, Cahn told a meeting of Woodcrest neighbors.