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Just once, I'd like to hear them say they're sorry, will pay it back and won't do it again

June 10, 2007|By TERRY HEADLEE

Well, here we go again.

By now, I'm sure most of you have read that the Hagerstown mayor and four of the five council members threw themselves and an unknown number of the city's department supervisors a holiday party last December that cost around $800 in taxpayers' money.

It's not that they snacked on large shrimp served with cocktail sauce, mini-Maryland crab balls or tender asparagus rolled in smoked turkey breast that got me interested in this story.

It actually was their reaction to the June 2 story by reporter Dan Dearth that made me wonder if elected officials truly "get it."

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Just once, wouldn't it be nice if those who are entrusted with your money (always remember this: It's your money, it's not their money) simply would fess up and say, "You know, in retrospect it doesn't look good, we apologize, we'll pay the money back and it won't happen again."

End of story.

No, that would make too much sense.

Instead, the mayor and some members of the council have done the opposite and apparently have decided to shoot the messenger (that's us) in a clear attempt to get you to think that this type of conduct is perfectly acceptable.

I don't want to regurgitate all of the comments made by the mayor and council about our coverage - which, by the way, was just a single story on an inside page.

But I will highlight one example so you can judge for yourself whether they look ridiculous when trying to find a scapegoat.

Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II apparently was so worked up over the story that he brought it up about four times at Tuesday's work session, then chided a reporter to join them for a meal after the meeting.

That's just great. Even with plenty of important issues going on in Hagerstown, the mayor still was fussing three days later over getting caught with his hand in the shrimp bowl.

This seems as good a time as any to bring this up, but isn't this the same board that last year made a big deal out of City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman spending $367 in city money on supplies and refreshments for the Building Community organization?

Judging from the reaction I've heard from the local community and those who voted in our online poll, the mayor and council might want to rethink this - particularly the next time they feast on your dime.

I realize online polls aren't scientific, but when I checked our poll Friday afternoon, more than 800 readers responded, and nearly eight out of every 10 voted that "it is never acceptable" for elected officials to hold a taxpayer-funded holiday party.

Few people will argue that an $800 bill in a $157 million budget is a significant abuse.

But we still need to report it when we find this stuff out because 1) you have a right to know and 2) who knows, but it might help uncover or shed light on similar financial abuses.

I also would be remiss if I didn't mention that the controversy also has brought out one of my favorite arguments: "Does The Herald-Mail pay for a holiday party for its employees?"

Yes, we do. So what?

The newspaper is a private company spending its own money (not your money). And when we have a party, everyone on staff is invited - not just a select few.

But you know why this is really important?

It's the point that some elected officials still don't understand the fundamental difference between the private sector and government - and that when you are in charge of "city funds," you spend taxpayer money as if it were your own money.

If you look at it that way, do you really think any of them would spend $800 out of their own pockets for a holiday dinner party?

Terry Headlee is executive editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7594, or by e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com

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