Usually, when a chief financial officer is in the news, you’re talking crisis.
That’s when things kind of blew up at Borough Hall, with the disclosure that freshly-resigned CFO Terrence Whalen hadn’t exactly been running the tightest ship, in bookkeeping terms.
No fraud was ever alleged. But checks were being deposited into the wrong accounts, according to outside auditor David Kaplan. Accounts weren’t being balanced. Refunds from developers’ escrow accounts were being made in duplicate.
The fallout from the sloppiness was real, as borough taxpayers took a hit in the form of a four-cents-per-$100 of property value tax increase for 2006-2007, all of it attributable to poor recordkeeping, officials said.
There was political fallout, too. Then-Mayor Ed McKenna blamed Councilman John Curley, who was head of the council’s finance committee, for failure to keep an eye on Whalen’s operation. McKenna bounced Curley from the high-profile assignment, and in a heated exchange, Curley uttered his infamous Why don’t you just take me down to Broad Street and hang me? retort. It all became fodder for last year’s mayoral race, which Curley lost to now-Mayor Pasquale Menna.
Well, what a different story 10 months can make, as evidence by the lovefest that erupted at last night’s council meeting for new CFO Frank Mason and his five-person crew of green eyeshades.
The occasion was the presentation of Kaplan’s annual audit.
“This audit is a lot different than last year’s,” Kaplan began. That report, he said, “was probably one of the most negative reports I’ve ever issued in my life,” which includes 23 years as an auditor, and caried with it a raft of recommendations that the borough needed to adopt to begin getting its house in order. Download rb_2005_audit_recommendations.doc
That’s been done. “All of the prior year’s audit recommendations were corrected in their entirety” Kaplan said. Moreover, this year’s analysis comes with no specific recommendations for remediation, a bill of health that’s as notably clean as the prior report was sullied, Kaplan said.
Menna said that in his 19 years as a councilman, there was never a year in which the auditor didn’t recommend some change. He called Mason as “the best CFO in New Jersey.” Councilman Michael DuPont, who is now the finance committee chair, also praised Mason’s efforts.
Outside the council chambers, Kaplan told redbankgreen, “The best course of action the borough could have taken was replacing the CFO. They did that, and replaced him with a highly competent and energetic CFO.”
Without mentioning Whalen by name, Kaplan said that Mason has superior organizational skills, is computer savvy, not afraid to make hard decisions, and “knows how to delegate, which was clearly absent in the prior CFO’s repertoire.”
Mason is a 36-year-old graduate of Seton Hall University and resident of Cranford who never before held the top financial post in a municipality. His last job was as treasurer and assistant CFO in North Bergen.
Reached at his office this morning, Mason deflected questions about the conditions he encountered on his arrival at 90 Monmouth Street, directing redbankgreen to last year’s dry-as-bones list of list of recommendations.
Mason said he didn’t want “to dig up the past” or in any way to appear to be badmouthing his predecessor. Instead, he credited his staff; former CFO Bruce Loversidge, who came back to town from out-of-state to offer both advice and hands-on help; and the members of the council finance committee, as well as Kaplan, for helping put the department back on track.
“It was an uphill battle,” is all he would say about the challenge of correcting past errors while keeping the borough’s ongoing operations and budget preparations current.
And how did he feel about last night’s Frank Mason lovefest, during which he stayed in his customary corner seat behind the council dais and did not speak?
“I’m not used to that kind of attention,” he said. “I don’t like it.”