– Then All Hell Breaks Loose –
Leroy Brooks and Mark
At the monthly meeting of the Columbus/Lowndes Convention & Visitors Bureau board meeting Monday afternoon, Chairman George Swales must have known it was the calm before the storm at the beginning of the meeting. After heralding the many accomplishments of CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter, he began the meeting by making a plea to the board members for peace and harmony on the board. “I don’t know of a place where a group of people can go unless they go united,” said Swales. “An advocacy philosophy is the only style of leadership I’ve ever known. And throughout the nation, it’s the only style that I’ve known that works. I guess I can do no more than implore us…to put down our axes and get on board with the notion that the only way that we save and serve Columbus and Lowndes (County), is, in unity. And I implore, one more time, for us to do that.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long after his impassioned plea for all hell to break loose!
During presentations for festivals and events coming up in the months of April, May and June, District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks and EMA Director Cindy Lawrence made their presentation asking for grant funds on behalf of the annual Juneteenth 4-day festival held at Sims Scott Park. In a recent column I had just opined how I had disagreed with a Commercial Dispatch editorial opinion that Leroy Brooks was somewhat abusing his power as an elected official by nudgingly reminding CVB board members that the board of supervisors appointed many of them while he spoke on behalf of the Alliance of Festival Organizers (AFO) at the December board meeting. This time, Brooks might have proven them right and me wrong when he shot back at board member Mark Castleberry during an exchange of words.
Brooks had just finished a pretty good presentation for Juneteenth. The problem started when Brooks began answering questions from board members. Board member Rissa Lawrence asked Brooks about the fact that Juneteenth’s final paperwork from 2011 showed a zero profit. Brooks said when he does the final report, he shows the profit. He began to complain that the CVB board wasn’t being consistent with its guidelines and what information they wanted from festival organizers. “Over the years, we’ve done a balanced budget, and so what I’m asking you-all is…and I’m sure that when ya’ll get to that point, ya’ll will define what we need to do. Because one year we do one thing and the next year we do another, and we kind of don’t know what to do. So, once you-all tell us what it is you need, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines. For years and years it was one way, then another year it was another way, so once ya’ll define guidelines and say this is the way we want it, I’ll make sure that all the information is provided.”
Lawrence responded, “Well, if it’s profit, you can do what you want to with it…but if it’s money that you didn’t spend, that’s different.” Brooks said, “I can assure you, we spend the money not just on these two activities, but from time to time there are other community activities in the community that we try and support. We have been incorporated since 1985. We are a very viable organization.”
Lawrence then asked Brooks about Juneteenth entertainer, “Mr. Sam” “You need to talk to his organizers, because they only paid him $400, and you’ve got him down for $2500…I just wanted to make you aware of that.” “If you’ll look at the bottom, it says this is a tentative budget,” Brooks responded.
“Well, Mrs Lawrence, let me say this…and I think anyone that does festivals will tell you, that what an entertainer will do something for Burkhalter, he might not do it for us. That’s the nature of the entertainment business.” Brooks went on to, again, explain that an entertainer might come out of Memphis and his band come out of North Carolina. But before they sing, you’ve got to pay them, he said. “Of course, we have accounting…we give them a sheet, sign a receipt, there’s a witness to it, but now all of this is tentative and if we get a chance to negotiate down, we will.”
“Do you get contracts on your entertainers?” asked Lawrence. At this point, you could tell Brooks was apparently growing tired of the questions. He told Lawrence that they go through an agent out of Macon, Georgia. That the agent receives 50% up front (pretty much standard in the industry. RW).
“I can assure you that I’ve been through the fire enough to know…that to dot every ‘I’ and cross every ‘t’, and so, they’ll never get Leroy Brooks on a technicality.”
Board member Mark Castleberry asked Brooks, “Are there any type of addendum on the expenses that show where the profit is spent? I know you talk about where it is, but kind of, a line item on how it’s spent?”
Brooks responded, “We have one, but again…if ya’ll want that as part of, we’ll do that. But what I’m saying is this…to the board. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. That if you’re gonna require Juneteenth, then everyone, every organization needs to show their profit. I wouldn’t understand why ya’ll need to know where the profit goes…but if ya’ll want that, we will do that.” Brooks was visibly becoming more tiring of the questioning. “The only thing I’m asking ya’ll…I don’t want any board member to single out the Afro-American Cultural Organization (the longtime organization that Brooks founded and the one that puts on Juneteenth) because of any other agenda. If you get written guidelines that state that this is the way that we do it, I promise you…we’ll do it.”
Castleberry calmly said, “Two things…if you’d let us manage our own board, we’d appreciate it, Mr. Brooks.”
“Yeah but what I’m saying to ya’ll is, when ya’ll get some guidelines that will allow us some avenue so we’ll know what you want, then we won’t have to deal with all of these questions, Mr. Castleberry,” Brooks shot back.
“It is our intent to work with the policies and enforce them…but that’s our business,” said Castleberry, again, very calmly.
“Well, the business is this, he asked me a question and I answered it. Everytime I come here, you seem to want to get contentious…and I want to make something very clear. Whether I ever get funding for Juneteenth or not, it’s not that important to me. But you’re gonna be respectful to me and I’m gonna be respectful to you. And if you have some problems as it relates, then you need to come and see me. No one wants to come before some of you-all because it’s like walking into a lions den. So what I want you to clearly understand is, I don’t know you very well, and you don’t know me. But, we are gonna respect each other, and we’re not going to…for a few dollars, I will not compromise my dignity. I want you to clearly understand…you haven’t done a very good job of running this board. Now, that’s my opinion. You’ve got an opinion and I’ve got one. So if we have to cast Juneteenth out the window to get a good understanding, we will. So, I hope from this day on that you and I will have a good understanding. If there’s some things you need to talk with me about, I will come to your office, or you come to mine, but you don’t chastise me and I won’t chastise you.
Castleberry said, “Well, I hate to continue this conversation, but…”
“Well, if it’s not about Juneteenth festival, I’m not gonna dignify it. If you’ve got a question about my festival or something like that, we can deal with, but other than that, I’m getting ready to leave.”
(I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. We don’t need elected officials going before boards that they appoint asking for grant money. Someone else needs to do that for them. And, while I’m at it, we also don’t need media members going before boards asking for grant money either. I’m speaking specifically about WCBI’s Steve Rogers on behalf of the Legends Concert. RW)
Later in this meeting, board member Whirllie Byrd hurled more accusations at CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter in the matter of paying for a meal with a CVB credit card. Near the end of an lengthy exchange between the two, Byrd said, “Nancy has a history of feeding her family.” Chairman Swales had to call the two to order and asked Byrd to stop the personal attacks.
More heated exchanges took place between Treasurer Bart Wise and Byrd. Another minor one between Wise and Dewitt Hicks. Packet reporter Brian Jones, covering the CVB meeting for his first time in a long time, was astounded by the fireworks.
The CVB board has some really good people on it. While they will never completely agree on everything, they absolutely must find a way to get back to the true purpose of the CVB board. This board has taken on an identity in the eyes of the public as being a sharply divided board with political influence from the Columbus city administration and also the county board of supervisors. Essentially, that would be Robert Smith and Harry Sanders. This is an extremely important board. And they need to quit playing politics at nearly every meeting. Make a decision and stand by it. And quit bringing the Link funding issue up at nearly every meeting. Either fund them the 15%, or don’t. But quit jerking them around.
Ron Williams can be reached by email at Ronsings2you@aol.com0