A state law nearly preempted a 'thank you' dinner the Elks were holding for police and fire personnel

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Members of the Hillsboro Elks Lodge shake hands with first responders during an appreciation dinner on Saturday, March 11.What if you held a dinner in someone's honor and nobody came?

That's the situation members of the Hillsboro Elks Lodge No. 1862 nearly found themselves in last weekend when they held a dinner thanking first responders for their service.

Days before the organization planned to feed more than 200 first responders — including members of the Hillsboro police and fire departments, the Washington County Sheriff's Office and the Washington County Consolidated Communications Agency, which handles 911 calls — organizer Cathy Kingery was told most of those invited wouldn't be able to attend.

At issue was a state ethics law which forbids government employees from receiving free gifts and gratuities.

Members of the Elks Lodge had spent two months planning the dinner. Members had sewed quilts, which they had planned to give to firefighters, police officers and ambulance drivers. The organization had purchased gift cards and other prizes, which they planned to give to first responders as a thank you in addition to a free dinner and live music.

But Lt. Henry Reimann, a spokesman with the Hillsboro Police Department, said receiving those items would violate the law.

"We can't take gifts," Reimann said. "… It was unfortunate, but there were lessons learned from all of us. We need to be ethically correct. The statute doesn't make exceptions."

Kingery has been a member of the Elks for 11 years. She said the event was meant to thank first responders for putting themselves on the front lines to protect Hillsboro residents.

"There are a lot of people all over the country right now not appreciating first responders," Kingery said. "Really and truly, they work hard and they put their lives on the line every day for us. We wanted to say thank you."

The Washington County Sheriff's Office and Hillsboro Police Department initially expressed interest in attending, Kingery said, but later backed out after they realized the dinner might violate state law.

"It's unfortunate, but that's what the rule says," Kingery said. "Some people decided not to join us."

Reimann said many officers wanted to attend, but couldn't the way the law was written.

"It was sad, because these were handmade items that they were giving us. It wasn't just something they bought that they could return."

Kingery worked with the agencies to change the event, stripping away many of the prizes and gifts they had planned to award to first responders. Quilts made by Elks members were given to departments to sell as a fundraising item, rather than given to first responders as gifts.

But by the time the Elks and the various agencies reached consensus, it was too late for many to attend, Kingery said.

Of the more than 200 guests organizers expected, only about 35 first responders, many of them retired, were able to attend.

"My wife and I were going to go, but when hiccup came we made other plans," said Reimann. "By the time it had been worked out, we couldn't go."

Despite the changes, Kingery said the event went well.

"It was small, it was quaint, but we had a great time and everyone enjoyed themselves," Kingery said. "We're happy with the way it came out."

Kingery, who currently serves as the lodge's exalted ruler, said that next year, the Elks Lodge will work with first responders before the event to make sure it complies with state law.

"We just have to figure out in a way to satisfy the law," she said.

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