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Editor's Voice: Making a bad impression

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 to ask for its money back in an attempt to secure a receipt that would satisfy auditors in the future.

What began as an attempt to follow Good Accounting Practices – or, at least, head off any questions an auditor might have about the donation – degenerated into a mess because of local political gamesmanship. It’s too bad it did, for council’s original vote to make the donation was a move that rose above the politics that plague Middletown. Reid was a popular mayor – he served for more than 25 years, a political popularity galvanized by his dogged handling of the Three Mile Island accident early in his first term – and one does not have to agree with his politics to honor someone who has served the public for so long.

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.