At the Jan. 22 Wildwood City Council meeting, Councilmember Glenn DeHart [Ward 1] motioned that City Administrator Ryan Thomas retain the Schowalter & Jabouri accounting firm, located in Sunset Hills, to conduct an audit and review of expenses from 2011 to 2016 regarding the city’s annual Founders Day event, now known as Celebrate Wildwood. The motion passed 12-4 with councilmembers Tammy Shea [Ward 3], Ray Manton [Ward 2] Don Bartoni [Ward 2] and Greg Stine [Ward 7] opposed.
According to DeHart, the city had an ordinance in place from 2011 to 2016 that required the use of a citizen-led committee with members appointed by the mayor and approved by council vote to oversee event expenses. However, DeHart said no appointments were made to that committee until 2017, despite the presence of the ordinance. From 2011 to 2016, funds were expended without exact documentation of amounts or paid recipients.
“I have personally reviewed some of the more recent expenditures during this time period, and have concluded that some appear questionable, particularly those expenditures related, directly or indirectly, to those who were running the event,” DeHart said at the Jan. 22 meeting.
Currently, the ordinance requires that councilmembers approve all line item expenditures before authorizing funds. The audit will review over 499 individual purchases made during the nearly six-year span to determine if any outstanding or unaccounted costs need to be dissected by the city. DeHart stated that specific names or line items were not cited at the meeting or to the public for privacy reasons of involved individuals until the report is completed.
The projected cost of the audit is about $4,500 and not to exceed $6,500.
“Councilmember DeHart let the mayor know he wanted to bring up the item for the last [Jan. 22] agenda,” City Administrator Ryan Thomas said. “When it was placed, I was asked to find a firm and get an idea of how much it would cost so the council could have that information.”
Some councilmembers questioned why the issue hadn’t been brought before the Public Works Department first, as an annual analysis already is done by the city’s existing auditor, RubinBrown LLP.
“I think the most troubling thing to me is if we have an issue here, our auditor hasn’t caught this,” Councilmember Greg Stine [Ward 7] said. “I’ve served on a financial committee for a $100 million nonprofit, and if we had anything like this come up, our hair would be on end. I think part of this needs to be some sort of review by our auditor as well. I don’t take this lightly, but to me, that’s a second concern here. If there’s some kind of fiscal problem: one, we get to the bottom of it, and two, we need to find out what’s going on with the auditor.”
The Wildwood city charter states the city council should provide for an independent audit of all city accounts at least annually, where Stine said the city regularly receives high marks in the quality of the material and numbers filed.
“The fact that the council approved this motion without information or an explanation is very unprecedented,” Stine said. “We are a very conscientious council. We like to ask questions and have all the information first.”
According to Mayor Jim Bowlin, the cumulative cost of the Founders Day and Celebrate Wildwood events from 2011 to 2016 was $320,000 in taxpayer dollars.
“Reviewing past expenditures will assure our residents that their tax dollars were spent appropriately,” Bowlin said.
For other councilmembers, the audit’s sudden motion and approval at a council meeting without an explicitly stated reason is cause for concern.
“The appropriate course should have been that a concern that would warrant an audit should have been clearly stated and justified, and then it could have been brought up for a vote,” Shea said. “I’d be shocked to think there are 499 line items, with that collection of years, listed in an expense report. I’m guessing that reference was made after looking at actual invoices, which we don’t receive.”
According to Shea, the audit implies possible wrongdoing from previous event contributors and councilmembers without evidence.
“To suggest there’s some failure, and that’s really what’s being suggested with this audit, it’s not on the people who participated in the Celebrate Wildwood event, but on the checks and balances throughout,” Shea said.
The latest members of the Celebrate Wildwood Commission were appointed in June 2017 to assist with organizing and conducting the event. All event expenses also were under the supervision of and subject to a council-approved budget.
“It cuts across levels of alliances that have existed throughout the city where everyone, at some level, has participated in and outside the council,” Shea said. “To go back this late in the game and say there’s been mishandling of money, without any proof, is discouraging.”
Other councilmembers at the Jan. 22 meeting and beyond also cited suspicions regarding the upcoming April election.
“I think this is a cynical ploy to make a political candidate look bad,” Stine said. “The ploy is the mayor, assisted by councilmember DeHart, and the candidate is John Gragnani.”
Gragnani is running against DeHart for the Ward 1 council seat in April and also is a city founder and previous Celebrate Wildwood volunteer.
According to DeHart, the issue doesn’t boil down to politics, but rather fiscal responsibility.
“This is $300,000 of real taxpayer money, it’s not play money,” DeHart said. “I want to make it very clear that we have this ordinance going forward because events like Celebrate Wildwood or the BBQ Bash are only going to get bigger.”
Regarding suspicions of the audit being politically motivated, Bowlin said the priority is to double-check the use of event funds.
“I think we should move past the politics and look at the real crux of the issue, which is to see if over $300,000 of our residents’ money was spent appropriately,” Bowlin said. “Period.”
The results are scheduled to return to the council on March 12.