City spend­ing on vol­un­teer event draws fire

Tab for Vol­un­teer Ap­pre­ci­a­tion Din­ner at Boathouse more than $10,000

The Progress-Index - - FRONT PAGE - By Lyn­don Ger­man H-P Staff Writer

HOPEWELL — Some res­i­dents have crit­i­cized the city govern­ment for spend­ing more than $10,000 for an event at the up­scale Boathouse restau­rant hon­or­ing vol­un­teers for their ser­vice to the com­mu­nity.

The Oct. 18 Vol­un­teer Ap­pre­ci­a­tion Din­ner cost a to­tal of $10,473, al­most 50 per­cent over the ex­pected cost of $7,000. The ad­di­tional fund­ing was not al­lo­cated by City Coun­cil, but came out of left­over funds from the city clerk’s bud­get.

Some res­i­dents and coun­cilors ques­tioned the spend­ing, agree­ing with the idea of show­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion to Hopewell’s many vol­un­teers but dis­turbed be­cause it cost so much at a time when the city has been strug­gling to pay its bills.

Mayor Jackie M. Shor­nak said she and other coun­cilors were not kept in­formed about the plan­ning. “From the mo­ment I re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion to the mo­ment I stepped into the Boathouse room, I was taken aback by the mis­use and ex­ces­sive use of tax­pay­ers’ dol­lars,” she said. “I do ap­pre­ci­ate and am thank­ful for our boards and com­mis­sions, but even some (of them) made com­ments to me that tax­pay­ers were not go­ing to be happy about the de­ci­sions made.”

One of those tax­pay­ers, Steve Romano, raised the is­sue at a re­cent coun­cil meet­ing.

“Some­how you found that money, which I think was a to­tal dis­grace as far as the cit­i­zens of Hopewell are con­cerned,” Romano said. “There’s been a lot of talk around town about it. I know a lot of peo­ple are com­plain­ing about it, I think ev­ery­body who went to that din­ner owes the cit­i­zens of this town an apol­ogy be­cause not many peo­ple who live in this town can af­ford to go to the Boathouse.

“I’m sure you’ve en­joyed the meal,” he added. “It must have been one heck of a meal, but it was on our nickel.”

Ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple

Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quests sub­mit­ted to the city by lo­cal me­dia and by Shor­nak, the break­down of the tab was $10,473 for menu and space at The Boathouse; $3,200 for port­fo­lio and pen sets given to the vol­un­teers as gifts; $1,445 for bot­tles; and slightly more than $76 for gift bags from Ama­zon.com. The to­tal cost amounted to $48 per guest.

The records show that past din­ners cost much less. A 2009 din­ner held at the Sun­light Elks Lodge cost $14 with­out china and $15.50 with china per per­son, and a cash bar at no cost to the city. Din­ners held be­tween 1999 and 2003 had a to­tal cost be­tween $1,000 and $3,000.

This year's was the first vol­un­teer din­ner hosted by the city since 2013.

The plan­ning com­mit­tee con­sisted of City Man­ager John M. Alt­man Jr., As­sis­tant City Man­ager Charles Dane, Vice Mayor Jas­mine E. Gore, Coun­cilor Jan­ice Den­ton, City Clerk Ron­ni­eye Ar­ring­ton and As­sis­tant City Clerk Frazelle Hamp­ton.

Dane said he was only par­tially in­volved in the plan­ning. He ac­knowl­edged that the din­ner could have been done much cheaper else­where, but with the large num­ber of peo­ple ex­pected to at­tend, a larger venue and ad­di­tional de­tails were needed.

Dane said he was asked “to call The Boathouse and see if I could get a bet­ter price per per­son. I didn’t do a lot of the plan­ning or any­thing, but I can say the price per per­son dropped sig­nif­i­cantly.

“Yes, it’s ex­pen­sive to do a ben­e­fit like that no mat­ter where you hold it. I think the price was rea­son­able for the num­ber of peo­ple that were in­volved.”

Den­ton said she had no idea that the din­ner would turn out as ex­pen­sive as it did. She said she and oth­ers had dis­cussed the idea of cook­ing the din­ner them­selves and hav­ing the city only pay for the meals, but that never ma­te­ri­al­ized. She also said there was never an oc­ca­sion when the com­mit­tee sat down to­gether to dis­cuss the agenda, adding that the de­tails were done through gen­eral con­sen­sus.

If the costs were go­ing to sur­pass the an­tic­i­pated al­lot­ment, Den­ton said, the com­mit­tee should have come back to coun­cil to ask for more money.

“I think some­times we lacked com­mu­ni­ca­tion as a group be­cause we never re­ally sat down and had a meet­ing to make some de­ci­sions,” Den­ton said, adding that she was “100 per­cent against” hav­ing the din­ner at The Boathouse.

Other mem­bers of coun­cil said they were un­aware of con­cerns over the din­ner un­til af­ter it hap­pened.

Coun­cilor An­thony J. Zev­go­lis said he had no in­volve­ment with the din­ner prepa­ra­tion but sup­ports ap­pre­ci­at­ing the ser­vice of the city’s vol­un­teers and still sup­ports the din­ner.

“I have not re­ceived any com­ments from any­one in re­gards to this din­ner be­ing held,” he said.

Coun­cilor Christina J. Lu­man-Bai­ley, who was mayor of Hopewell the last time a vol­un­teer din­ner was held, said she did not re­call the bud­get of pre­vi­ous din­ners, but she said all of coun­cil at­tended be­cause they all wanted to thank the vol­un­teers.

Ar­ring­ton said the din­ner was au­tho­rized by coun­cil, but no one on coun­cil con­tacted her to ask about the de­tails.

“At no point did any coun­cilor say, ‘You know what, Ron­ni­eye? You’re spend­ing more money than we want,’” Ar­ring­ton said. “No­body asked me.”

Ar­ring­ton said this year’s din­ner costs ran higher “be­cause we knew we were us­ing salary sav­ings. Had the event been bud­geted, we would have op­er­ated within those con­fines.”

Coun­cilor Brenda Pel­ham said she was aware of com­mu­nity dis­ap­proval over the din­ner, but she be­lieves the sen­ti­ment for the vol­un­teers is a great to­ken of ap­pre­ci­a­tion, and the com­mit­tee “did an awe­some job in pre­par­ing it.” The dis­ap­proval hasn’t changed her mind.

“When you look at the in­di­vid­ual cost per vol­un­teer, you will find that it is a min­i­mal amount paid for the hours of sac­ri­fice in serv­ing the city, the time spent away from fam­ily, and the use of each mem­ber’s au­to­mo­bile,” Pel­ham said.

“This equates to a sim­ple thanks or thank-you for your ser­vice. We have not rec­og­nized these vol­un­teers in five or more years. There­fore, the an­nual amount would be very much equiv­a­lent to the norm that we spent in the past.”

Ar­ring­ton said the mes­sage of the din­ner is where peo­ple should be fo­cused. “I’m sorry this hap­pened, and I hope peo­ple will re­mem­ber what the in­tent was and not get hung up on how it ended,” she said.

Lyn­don Ger­man is a staff writer for the Hopewell Her­ald and Prince Ge­orge Post.

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