Ceremonial Checks for Dover Council Members' Discretionary Fundi - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Ceremonial Checks from Dover Council Members' Discretionary Funding Draws Criticism

Posted: Feb 13, 2018 7:41 PM Updated:
Dover Councilman Brian Lewis delivers a ceremonial check to the Dover Volunteer Fire Department. (Submitted) Dover Councilman Brian Lewis delivers a ceremonial check to the Dover Volunteer Fire Department. (Submitted)

DOVER, Del. --- The practice of presenting ceremonial checks for Dover council members' discretionary funds is drawing criticism from some city lawmakers who argue the events raise ethical issues about the perception of how taxpayer money being spent.

Dover allots $25,000 for discretionary funding intended "to enhance and provide support to community needs within each council district." Each district council member is allotted $2,500 to be used at their discretion for qualified organizations or causes and the council president, an at-large member who represents the entire city, receives $5,000.

City Clerk Traci McDowell said the city has printed out at least five ceremonial checks over the last couple years that were given to organizations during photographed presentations. The large ceremonial checks, she said, are requested by council members for a presentation and are not the same as the actual checks cashed by organizations, which clearly state the money order originated from the City of Dover.

But Councilman Matt Lindell (District 1), who spearheaded a recent effort to adopt official policies for discretionary funds that prohibit the money from being used for personal or political interests, said the "big check" presentations involving taxpayer dollars "are a bad look for council" because it gives the perception that the money belongs to council members themselves.

"It's up to interpretation if you want to look at it as overtly political, but I mean it's just grandstanding," he said.

The most recent discretionary check presentation from a council member occurred on Feb. 2 and came from Councilman Brian Lewis (District 2), who gave $500 in community enhancement funds to the Dover Volunteer Fire Department to help with the purchase of an apparatus already on order. Lewis was photographed at the firehouse on Governors Avenue giving the ceremonial check to Chief Buck Carey and members of the fire department, including Mayor Robin Christiansen, who said he was there solely in his capacity with the department.

Last May, Lewis also donated $700 in discretionary funds with a ceremonial check presentation for Police Athletic League program in Dover and submitted a photograph to local news agencies of him giving the check to Police Chief Mavin Mailey and other department officials. He also invited news reporters to attend and cover a check presentation of $300 from his own personal money to PAL in December. 

However, Lewis denied the photo-ops were conducted for personal or political gain.

"It was just to show the people that, you know, this is what I'm doing with my money. I'm giving it back to the community. I'm giving to the fire department," he said.

Councilman Brian Lewis delivers a ceremonial check representing his $700 contribution of council discretionary funds to the Dover Police Athletic League. (Submitted)

 

Councilman Bill Hare (District 2) said he doesn't see the point at all of doing the check presentations for discretionary funds because the money is intended for community enhancements.

When it comes to using discretionary funding, Hare said he typically asks the city to send a check to an organization and felt the only purpose for holding check presentation events, like the one for Lewis' contribution to the fire department, could be individual gain. 

"I guess the obvious thing, since nothing was written about it, is they see him giving $500 to the fire department," he said.

Councilman Roy Sudler (District 4) said he presented ceremonial checks to three organizations in the last year and did the exchanges on the floor of city council to offer transparency to taxpayers about where their money is going, rather than garner publicity.

In his case, Sudler said last year he donated $1,000 to NorthNode Counseling, a group counseling center in Dover, $1,000 to Victory Church, a religious group formerly located outside of the city that promoted the idea of creating "tiny homes" to house the homeless, and $500 for the food kitchen at Mount Zion AME, a church he attends.

"It may be a bad perception but it's not a conflict of interest," he said of the donation to Mount Zion, noting the church's work with the homeless.

McDowell said her records showed Lewis and Sudler as being the only two council members who have presented ceremonial checks to organizations receiving discretionary funds. It was unclear on Tuesday exactly how much money each enlarged check cost the city.

Some people like Robert Crossley of Dover said he felt check presentations seem to give council members credit for donating taxpayer money to various causes. 

"It ought to be up to the individual, not taking the taxpayer's money," he said.

Gwen Bethel Griffin of Dover, said she's less concerned about photo-ops than the cause supported by the public funding.

"I try not to look at the negative. I don't care who takes credit," she said.

Still, Lindell argues council members shouldn't be making a big show of donating taxpayer money to a particular cause.

"I don't think you need the big checks and the puffing your chest out and doing that," he said. "Your actions will speak louder than any check."

Procedure Changed for Names on Ceremonial Checks

Ceremonial checks presented by Lewis and Sudler have included their names in the top left corner of the check, rather than listing the sender as the "City of Dover." Lewis denies ever having asked the city to place his name on a check.

McDowell said she had no records of a council member requesting their name be placed on the ceremonial checks and the switch was likely made to reflect whose whose discretionary funds were being donated. 

But after WBOC inquired about community enhancement funds, McDowell said she had changed the procedure for how ceremonial checks involving council discretionary funds will appear.

Now, she said, an image of the actual check will be enlarged to fit the poster board upon which the ceremonial check is placed. That image will always list the sender as the City of Dover, unlike a template for the images used previous checks for discretionary funds.

The new policy will remain in effect, she said, unless other instructions are delivered by council.

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