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Lessons learned in Mat Club case

Though painful, there were some positives
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If they can't agree on anything else, Keith Meeuwsen and Craig Melton agree on this - they're glad the investigations into the St. Helens Mat Club are over.

The continuing saga of whether funds from bake sales and car washes and donated to the high school wrestling program were stolen, misused or misappropriated appears to have reached the end of the line with the Oregon Department of Justice report saying it was dropping the case because there is no evidence to suggest the law was broken.

They might also agree that the case escalated beyond all sense of proportion, although their reasons for that would surely differ. A fair and objective reading of the matter would have to put responsibility for that somewhere in-between.

One thing is for sure; the case was hard on everybody involved. It was hard on Keith Meeuwsen, who by most accounts is a thoughtful, hardworking and dedicated coach. In the end, Meeuwsen lost the coaching job to which he had devoted much of his career. Questions about his character were also raised in this ordeal - which hurt - for over a year until his name was cleared in no less than three independent investigations. That is a heavy cross for anybody to have to bear.

The process also took its toll on Craig and Ronda Melton, who helped raise some of the wrestling club funds, and pressed for accountability from the man running the program to which the money was given. The Meltons were criticized, even vilified, by some for pushing too hard for an accounting and going too far when they didn't get one. Some say a relatively small amount of money was involved, so why did it become such a big deal? Perhaps the best answer for that is people are passionate about and invested in school programs, especially sports. Keeping these programs alive has become increasingly difficult since property tax limits, the downturn in timber receipts and other factors have forced school districts to dramatically reduce their budgets, year after year for more than a decade. The wrestling program at St. Helens, for example, gets a paltry $600 to run for a year. That's why fundraising organizations like the St. Helens Boosters and the Mat Club have become so vital to the continued operation of programs like high school wrestling, and, in turn, are important to the community. They live or die by the funding they get from outside donations. People have to trust that these funds will be used for their intended purposes.

We live in a period where a lot is said about transparency. Perhaps more than at any time in the past, people are demanding that public and quasi-public organizations open their books to public scrutiny. Executives in publicly traded companies have burned investors by feathering their own nests with others' money under their control. Legislators have gone on trips to Hawaii for things like beer and wine association conferences. Presidents of civic organizations have embezzled and absconded with money out of the cookie jars of babes. All of these activities have fueled the hue and cry for greater transparency. Business is not conducted on a handshake anymore.

It is against this backdrop that every organization, including the St. Helens Mat Club, operates nowadays. It is a sign of the times that are not as innocent as they were in 'the good old days.'

That said, it would be a tragedy on top of tragedy if nothing good came from this ordeal.

Without a doubt, there were some hurt feelings and damaged relationships. We hope, over time, those wounds will heal. In the meantime, the school district, as a direct consequence of this action, adopted fundraising policies and procedures that will ensure greater transparency in the future. That is a net positive. Rumors swirling around the school district about misuse of charitable contributions have been fully adjudicated and largely debunked. That is a net positive, too.

Department of Justice investigator Fiona Harpster perhaps said it best when she observed the situation might have been avoided had there been a clear understanding between the parents and the coach of what was an acceptable use of funds, and what was not. As so often is the case, expectations were not clearly defined in advance, giving rise to misunderstandings after the fact.

Upon one point there is universal agreement - that is that kids and their programs need and deserve continued support.