Dec 19th Hearing on the Ordinance Adding Two Additional Trustees to the Library Board: M’town Patch & Independent articles contain inaccuracies

By guest blogger Linda Baum

If you are a regular to Mike’s blog, by now you are well informed about the Library’s $500,000 transfer to the Township this year and the Town Committee’s plan to increase the number of Library trustees from 7 to 9 in 2012.

A public hearing on the Ordinance increasing Board membership was held at the Town Committee meeting on Monday, December 19th. Several reporters were present at the hearing. Mike Davis’s article in the Independent and Sue Morgan’s in the Middletown Patch were posted within a day or two. While they get points for timeliness, they lose some for accuracy.

Sue Morgan misstates the amount of the Library’s annual budget as $700K – it is $3.7M – but that is a minor error compared to the second to last sentence of her article. She wrote:

“Under an agreement hammered out by both the board and the committee, the township is now carrying the debt service on the library’s parking lot which recently underwent extensive repairs, the mayor added.”

The statement is inaccurate in two ways. As far as I know, there was no major work done to the lot recently, and the Library did not proceed with its lot expansion. Further, per the agreement this year between the Library and the Township, the Library has only two options for covering the cost of its capital improvements – they can pay cash or they can make the debt service payments on bonds (or notes) issued by the Township.

I don’t recall Mayor Fiore making the statement as it reads in the Patch article, and I think it can be attributed to an intentionally misleading comment he made, as quoted in the Independent, about encompassing “some of [the Library’s] capital projects into [the Township’s] capital program, including their parking lot and solar projects.” That made it sound like the Township is paying, but there is no cost to the Township for either the lot expansion or the solar project, which is a power purchase arrangement that involves no capital outlay.

Both the Independent and Patch articles included comments made by both Melanie Elmiger and myself. Melanie presented her comments very well at the hearing and I think they were captured fairly accurately in the articles. However, I think some of what I said was misrepresented in the Independent.

I would like to set the record straight, so here is a recap of my comments at the hearing along with excerpts from the Independent where I feel Mike Davis missed the mark.

Mayor Fiore has been framing the increase in Library Board membership as just an increase in public participation, with no other motive. So if more participation is a good thing for the Library Board, I questioned why that isn’t also true for the Sewerage Authority (TOMSA) Board and for the Town Committee itself, both with just 5 members each controlling budgets of $9 million and $60 million, respectively. In contrast, the Library Board currently has 7 members, soon to be 9, overseeing a budget of $3.7 million.

My point was that the Town Committee’s stance about the need for more public participation on the Library Board runs counter to their stance about the participation levels on other boards & committees. (Keep in mind the Town Committee has resisted the formation of a finance committee that would increase public participation and oversight of its own activities.)

Mayor Fiore replied that TOMSA has 7 board members, and I was quick to correct him that it is a 5-member board with 2 alternates, where only 5 vote at any time. Fiore again insisted, incorrectly, that there are 7 members.

Besides the inconsistencies in board size, there are also inconsistencies in oversight. I compared the Township’s scrutiny of the Library’s budget and operations to its hands-off approach to TOMSA and said that a consistent policy was needed. Fiore said that they do oversee TOMSA and that the money TOMSA gave to the Township – $730K over the last two years – is proof of that. Ridiculous. As I see it, that handout could just as easily be interpreted as a concession to avoid scrutiny. Regardless, it certainly can’t be construed as proof of oversight.

(An aside: If the Town Committee is really overseeing TOMSA and is so gung ho about public participation, how is it the TOMSA Board was able to avoid the public’s eye recently by ignoring a legal mandate to publish notice of their budget hearing? And shouldn’t oversight of TOMSA’s budget entail elimination of unwarranted expenses, such as medical and pension benefits for Board members? The Township has sanctioned these costs!)

Mike Davis’s article contains some partial quotes, inaccuracies, and re-ordering of comments that, combined, miss the point I was trying to make. He describes my comments as follows:

“Public participation is a good thing. You see [that] nine members are needed to oversee a $3.8 million budget,” she said, also citing the seven members who make up the Township of Middletown Sewerage Authority.”

The Township Committee was not exempt, she said.

“Right now you have five people on the Township Committee controlling a $60 million budget. It seems to me you need a consistent policy here. If you’re going to watch one closely, watch them all closely,” Baum said.

I think that anyone reading that would have trouble following my logic. Also, he makes it sound like I’m arguing in favor of the two additional appointees to the Library Board, which I wasn’t. I’m against it given the current political environment, but I admit I may not have stated that outright. I didn’t organize my comments as well as Melanie did, so I can understand if there was confusion.

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Filed under Board of Directors, Board of Trustees, budget surplus, guest blogger, Linda Baum, Middletown Library, Middletown NJ, Middletown Patch, public hearing, the Independent, TOMSA, Tony Fiore

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