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Military banners cause council battle; popular new program exposes rifts, leads to accusations

By Dan Miller danmiller@pressandjournal.com
Posted 5/17/17

Donald Reid just wants to buy a military banner to honor his brothers, as more than 85 people already have done in Middletown.

It doesn’t matter to him that the effort has sparked a …

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Military banners cause council battle; popular new program exposes rifts, leads to accusations

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Donald Reid just wants to buy a military banner to honor his brothers, as more than 85 people already have done in Middletown.

It doesn’t matter to him that the effort has sparked a political controversy making it clear that a deep rift exists on Middletown Borough Council. He doesn’t care that the council president has stopped the program for now.

Reid just wants to know how he can buy four banners — one for each of his three deceased brothers, who were all veterans, and one for himself.

There are others like him, folks who for one reason or another say they did not know about the program until after the deadline to buy them had passed.

It’s that overwhelming response to the banners that has brought to light a rift on council.

One council member has referred to two others as “anti-veteran,” an accusation that was called “slander” by one of the accused.

The council president said that council member is trying to make herself look good by trying to make others look bad.

So how did a program that exceeded expectations and by most accounts has been a success cause such a ruckus? It depends on whom you ask. It could be a lack of places to put more banners. It could be a lack of approval for the program. Or it could be a personal vendetta.

But the question remains: If and when will Reid and others be able to get banners?

Strong response

The idea of putting up banners in town to honor veterans from Middletown is credited to borough Public Works Director Greg Wilsbach.

Wilsbach told Councilor Diana McGlone about the program. He showed her a pamphlet about the banners that Wilsbach had gotten from Rileighs Outdoor Decor of Allentown, a company that makes the banners, McGlone told the Press & Journal.

The original plan was for this first set of banners to be displayed over a two-year period.

They would go up sometime before Memorial Day 2017, and stay up until around Veterans Day, when they would be taken down to be stored by the borough over the winter.

The borough would then put the banners back up before Memorial Day 2018, and they would stay up until around Veterans Day 2018, and then be taken back down. This time, the banners would be returned to the businesses and individuals who had bought them.

Early in the year, McGlone set a March 28 deadline for purchase of the banners at a cost of $85 each. The program was open to anyone living in Lower Swatara, Middletown and in Royalton — the borders of Middletown Area School District.

On April 4, McGlone told council that more than 85 people and businesses had signed up to purchase a banner, according to minutes from the April 4 meeting posted on the borough website.

McGlone advised council that she had been contacted by several people who said they did not know about the banners until after the March 28 deadline, and that council should look at reopening the program in order to make the banners available to more people.

However, Council Vice President Dawn Knull and Mayor James H. Curry III both say that McGlone herself told council that the banners program was “closed” as of the March 28 deadline.

Council meeting minutes do not refer to the statement and McGlone told the Press & Journal she never told council that the program was closed.

Knull added that McGlone provided “very vague” answers when she and Curry asked her how the $85 cost for the banners had been arrived at, whether there would be any money left over and if so, where the money would be going.

McGlone told the Press & Journal that the $85 was based on the full cost of making the banners, plus added costs for shipping and handling. The $85 was also meant to address any added cost to the borough in case of any of the banners being vandalized.

These same types of banners to honor veterans have cost residents $100 or more in other towns in Pennsylvania, McGlone said. She acknowledged that the $85 did not fully cover the cost of the borough installing the banners on poles. She estimated that the project has cost the borough about $1,320, based upon an estimate Wilsbach had provided council earlier that the borough would need to buy 24 “arms” at a cost of $55 each to hang the banners on some of the poles.

On Monday, May 15, McGlone told the Press & Journal that 30 to 50 banners could be sold if the program is reopened.

Borough Public Works employees started placing the banners last week, along with hanging flowers to beautify the borough.

On May 9 — the same day that the banners started to be put up — McGlone forwarded to the Press & Journal an email from council President Damon Suglia that was sent to borough Manager Ken Klinepeter and to council. It said that the number of banners should be capped “at our current limit,” referring to the 88 that had already been sold through McGlone.

“We have gone past the number of banners that were originally proposed and I feel as if we have exceeded our capacity,” Suglia wrote in the email. “Please remove all further discussion of this program from our meetings and cut it off where it currently is. Ms. McGlone will have to explain this to the applicants that did not meet the deadline.”

Suglia went on to say that the program can be reopened for more people to buy banners after the two-year period expires for the first set of banners — meaning in 2018.

McGlone in a message accompanying the email to the Press & Journal accused both Suglia and Knull of being “anti-veteran” for failing to support the banner program.

Suglia, who said his email was not to be made public, called McGlone “absolutely off track.”

“My father is a veteran, all of my businesses give military and first-responder discounts. It’s absolutely absurd. It’s just her trying to make herself look good by trying to make others look bad,” Suglia said.

Knull labeled McGlone’s comment “slander” and “completely false,” noting that her grandfather and other members of her family are veterans, as is her husband’s father.

McGlone said she stands by her comment calling both Knull and Suglia anti-veteran, because “they don’t support this program.”

“This program is to benefit the community and (those) who serve,” McGlone said. “It’s disgusting that we have council leadership trying to interject their personal vendettas against me. That’s what this is all about.”

Suglia and Knull both say that they support the banners. However, they both contend that McGlone carried out the program in a way that kept council in the dark.

“I ran on transparency,” said Knull, who was elected to council for a two-year term in 2015. She is running for a four-year term in 2017. “I cannot be transparent with the residents if I don’t know what is going on.”

Not enough poles?

Suglia and Knull both say that the banners should only be placed upon the historic green decorative poles that the borough owns and that are located in the downtown.

According to McGlone, the borough has 58 decorative poles. The 88 banners McGlone has already allowed to be purchased is already too many, Suglia said.

McGlone said that Klinepeter and Wilsbach had told her that the borough only had 58 decorative poles, but that the overflow number of banners could be placed on utility poles.

“I had asked Greg to get in touch with Verizon” about whether it would be OK to put the banners on poles in Middletown that Verizon owns, McGlone said, and she has not heard of any concerns yet.

In fact, the borough has put a number of the banners up on poles in Middletown, including on Vine, West Main, and Ann streets.

McGlone sees no problem putting the banners on telephone poles.

“That’s just an excuse” for why Suglia and Knull do not want to make the banners available for more people to buy them, she said.

“If I bought a banner I would not want it on a telephone pole,” Suglia said. “I would want it on a decorative pole.”

Knull said Wilsbach did not feel “comfortable” putting the banners on telephone poles because of the wires on the poles.

However, Wilsbach said he felt he had to put the banners on the utility poles, because the banners had already been sold and the borough had no more decorative poles to put them on, Knull said.

According to Knull, some residents have told her that the banners look “tacky” on the telephone poles, compared to how they appear on the decorative poles.

No authorization?

Suglia said that McGlone should not have tasked borough manpower and resources to put the banners up without going through “the chain of command” — meaning the borough council.

“She needs to learn how to play by the rules instead of making her own,” Suglia said of McGlone.

McGlone counters that she worked closely with Klinepeter and Wilsbach throughout the entire process, and forwarded to the Press & Journal a string of emails between herself and the two officials regarding the banners.

She contended that she did not need borough council approval to commit borough resources and funds to putting up the banners, because council when it approved the 2017 budget in December set aside $25,000 to go into a Middletown “beautification fund.”

McGlone points out that Curry did not have to get council approval when he had borough resources committed to having special ornaments put up on the borough Christmas tree in December 2016.

“It’s a double standard,” McGlone said, referring to Suglia now saying that she should have run the banners program through council.

“Diana’s accusation is merely an attempt to bait me into a childish argument. I’m not taking the bait,” Curry told the Press & Journal in response.

Curry said that Suglia’s main concern is that a second round of ordering banners would make the borough susceptible to competitive bidding requirements under state law.

By stopping the process at this point, Suglia is “protecting” the borough from potential legal issues that could result if the borough does not comply with these requirements, the mayor said.

“She (McGlone) is attempting to create an emotional issue rather than focus on law,” Curry said. “I welcome the Press & Journal to speak with Borough Manager Klinepeter about bidding requirements and why the banners program is becoming an issue in light of those requirements.”

Suglia told the Press & Journal that McGlone “is getting close to breaking (state) procurement law” if she is allowed to order more banners through the borough.

“That could set us up for a lawsuit. I’m protecting the borough here. I am trying to keep us out of trouble.”

McGlone had told Klinepeter and Wilsbach in an email that she did not believe buying the banners would be subject to competitive bidding, since the money to purchase the banners did not come from tax dollars but from private individuals and businesses.

However, Klinepeter told McGlone that depositing the private money in a borough account in order for the banners to be purchased through the borough makes the purchase susceptible to competitive bidding requirements.

Any purchase of $10,800 or more — including the cost of the 88 banners already purchased — would trigger a requirement under state law that the borough obtain quotes from three vendors, Klinepeter told McGlone in an email. Any purchase of $19,800 or more would require competitive bidding.

Those who want banners

Donald Reid was in the Navy from 1957 to 1979, and retired as a captain. In addition to his three brothers who have passed away, he has two other living brothers who are veterans — Tom, an Air Force veteran who lives in Connecticut, and Robert Reid, who was Middletown’s mayor for many years and who now serves on borough council. Robert Reid is an Army veteran.

“I’ll let Bob pay for himself” as can Tom, Reid said.

He now lives in Lower Swatara but grew up in Middletown. Despite his brother being on borough council, Reid said he didn’t know anything about the banners until he saw the article about them going up in town on the front page of the May 10 Press & Journal.

The Press & Journal had carried previous articles about the banners, including one in the March 15 edition referring to the March 28 deadline for ordering a banner.

Reid said he reads the Press & Journal every week while at the 230 Diner in Highspire.

“I have no idea how I missed this,” he said.

Reid said his first impression was that people had to be “selected” to get a banner. But when he asked Robert Reid about how he could get selected, Reid said his brother told him that the program had been open to anyone.

Most towns choose to honor veterans in a collective manner, by putting up some kind of memorial, Reid said. By contrast, “this individualization makes it rather different and I think more personal,” Reid said. “I don’t think in all of my travels I’ve seen any other town honor their military like this program does, and it appears to have been done in a very simple fashion, without any bravado.”

A May 12 post on the Press & Journal Facebook page promoting an article about the banners going up led to responses from two people asking how they could get a banner.

A third person asked why the borough is waiting “so long” to make more banners available.

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