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Editor's Voice: Making a bad impression

Posted 4/22/14

When is a donation not a donation? When you demand your money back. That’s what Middletown Borough Council did with a $200 donation it gave toward a party honoring long-time mayor Robert Reid – council voted 6-3 to contribute to it, then voted …

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Editor's Voice: Making a bad impression

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Here’s what happened after council approved the donation: The borough presented a check to the owner of The Event Place, which was hired to host and cater Reid’s thank-you party, based on an invoice that organizers presented to the borough. But a broken water line forced the venue to cancel, resulting in a change of location and caterer, and the check was returned – to the party’s organizer, Diana McGlone, not the borough.

The party went on at the Rescue Hose Company fire hall, with food from another source. But the financial consultant hired to serve as the borough’s finance director was uncertain the Event Place invoice originally provided to the borough would pass muster in an audit, since the party was not held there.

One would think it would be an easy matter to simply ask the organizer for another invoice for the new venue or caterer, or a simple receipt that shows the borough’s contribution was received. Unfortunately, what seems a simple matter to resolve was bandied about at an April 7 council meeting as though it was a mystery too confusing to unravel. By the time the borough’s finance director, consultant Mark Morgan, stressed that the issue was simply a question of good accounting, and not a charge that something was improperly done, the ship had already sailed.

Making matters worse: McGlone sat in the audience during the meeting. Perhaps upset that she was being talked about as though she wasn’t there, she announced she had proper receipts, denounced council for seemingly backing out of a community event that just seemed right to hold, and left council’s chambers. Council voted to ask for its money back, and while its unclear if they legally can demand repayment, the public relations damage had been done.



You could argue that councilors may have voted against the donation because of moral objections to donating the public’s money to whatever good community cause asks for money – but that clearly is not why councilors did what they did. A $500 contribution to a sportsmen’s club to hold an annual trout-fishing derby for local youths at the Middletown Reservoir sailed to a 9-0 approval earlier in the meeting, with some councilors supporting the contribution with fond memories of past derby events.

What makes council’s actions regarding the Reid party stand out more is the borough’s action last week in closing the Elks Building, and three shops that rent space there, as a potentially “unsafe’’ structure until the building’s owner could prove that a recent roof leak hadn’t rendered the roof unstable. The borough’s codes enforcement officer, a private company hired by the borough on an as-needed basis, was simply doing his job in issuing a violation notice to the owner, the Greater Middletown Economic Development Corp., but what happened after that casts doubt on the borough’s motivations.

The officer gave GMEDC 15 days from the receipt of his notice, which was dated April 2 (and, presumably, mailed on that day). Around noon exactly 15 days later, he was posting placards on the entrance doors to the building that declared the structure unsafe – a little too eager, it would seem.

What is unsettling is that a reporter from a local TV station and a camera crew were there at the precise moment the officer was posting the placards. Undoubtedly the TV crew was summoned, or told in advance the action was going to happen. Since the borough has attempted to acquire the building in the past – council voted in 2012 to take it by eminent domain, though it never pursued it in court – and has waged a running feud with the private GMEDC about the building, and downtown development in general, the whole affair seems tainted by political fighting.

The fact that the shops were closed for one day, then allowed to reopen when GMEDC provided proof in the form of an engineering report, that the roof was safe did the borough no public relations favors.

The borough has tried recently to press its case for a downtown renovation and a reduction in spending, and gain support for its stand on a number of local issues, by lamenting the fact that there are some who are vocal in their opposition to council’s decisions. A consultant hired as part of the renovation project seemed to encourage unity, citing it as the greatest problem the borough currently faces.

We’re not sure that absolute unity, even in the local political arena, is possible anywhere, and we certainly don’t approve of silencing those who simply would disagree with government’s decisions.

If anything will turn off potential developers, or business people who might consider Middletown as a place to do business in the future, it's the level of political gamesmanship on display with the Reid party and the Elks Building. People outside the realm of local politics will see it as too volatile to take a risk on the borough. If a town can’t honor a longtime mayor with a party in his honor without turning it into a political fight, or work together to resolve a building codes issue without using it as a chance to score points in a political battle, is it worth risking an investment on it?

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