Wants City to Set Aside Hotel Tax for Trotter Renovation
At their Aug. 20 meeting, the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau discussed their recent retreat, finances, board members’ access to records, new grant guidelines, public access to meetings and, finally, the disposition of the hotel tax collected by the City of Columbus. Columbus citizen Berry Hinds also addressed the board.
Farewell to Swales
Before getting down to business, the board bid farewell to George Swales, who has resigned. Monday was his last meeting as a member of the board.
“It’s always a sad day when we have to realize we are going to have to lose George as a member of our board,” said President DeWitt Hicks. “He has been an excellent member of the board. He has used his wise brain and steady hand to help us sail through some troubled waters. He went through the dissolution of the old board and the creation of the new CVB, and we can’t thank him enough.”
Executive Director Nancy Carpenter presented Swales with a plaque, and then the meeting began.
Buckhalter questions retreat, Byrd questions vehicle policy
During the approval of the minutes, Bernard Buckhalter questioned the legality of some actions taken at the board’s July 24 retreat. [The CVB board held a retreat in Crawford. At that meeting, business – including grant awards and approval of the budget – was handled. – Brian Jones]
“I’m concerned about the retreat,” Buckhalter said. “My understanding as a board member was that this was not an actual board meeting. If it was a board meeting it should have been a special called meeting, and therefore it should have been advertised. If we did not advertise it, it was illegal.”
“We did advertise it, and it has always been a meeting where we handled business,” Hicks said. “I’ve been on this board for seven years, and it’s always been a board meeting. We had media there. Every piece of media was notified.”
“It’s in our bylaws—” Buckhalter began, but Hicks cut him off.
“Show me where we’ve broken the law,” Hicks said.
“The bylaws say that we have to notice a special meeting,” Buckhalter said.
“We recessed the meeting on July 15,” Hicks said, “until the meeting on the 24th. You were here. Every board member knew that. I’m sorry that you had commitments and—”
“That has nothing to do with it,” Buckhalter said, interrupting Hicks. “That’s not why I’m raising the questions. I’m trying to see where it says we recessed the meeting in the minutes of the 16th.”
“The understanding was that we were going to meet again,” Hicks said.
“I understand that, but I don’t see the notice that that was going to be a board meeting,” Buckhalter said.
“It’s always been a board meeting,” Hicks repeated.
Whirllie Byrd asked what the attorney’s findings were for personal use of a CVB vehicle. [In June, Ms. Byrd asked that the board look into private usage of CVB vehicles. She heavily implied that Ms. Carpenter was using the vehicle for personal business, but the matter ended up being tabled before any action could be taken. – Brian Jones]
“I asked about this before, but it was delayed to a later date,” Byrd said.
“I suggest we put that on the agenda for the next meeting,” Hicks said. “It’s not on the agenda for tonight.”
“I asked for it to be put on the agenda,” Byrd said. “But I was told that it was too late to get something put on the agenda. This has been delayed from one month to the next for some reason.”
“We’ll have the attorney here next time to answer that question,” Hicks said.
“I contacted the attorney general’s office, and information I received clearly states that business vehicles may not be used for personal use,” Byrd said.
“Are you making an accusation, Ms. Byrd?” Hicks asked. “If you are going to make accusations against a staff member, I suggest we appoint you and the members of the executive committee to make an investigation. But this is an open meeting, we can be sued if we make criminal charges against a board member.”
“I am trying to get the opinion of the attorney,” Byrd said, and she and Hicks began to talk over each other.
“We will get that,” Hicks said. “But we are not going to do this in open session. It is improper. That’s a violation of the due process of that employee.”
“We should have a policy concerning personal use,” Byrd said. “I don’t care who’s driving it.”
“We have a policy against using it for personal use,” Hicks said. “Let’s get the attorney here and the whole world can hear what the policy is. You don’t use a company vehicle for personal use, and that has been known for several months now.”
“I disagree,” Byrd said. “It was stated…it was voted down when I made a motion.”
“It was voted down to have a discussion of an issue that involves—” Hicks said.
“Well, let’s get the attorney here at the next meeting,” Byrd said, interrupting him. “I’m not going to argue with you, Mr. Attorney.”
Byrd’s issue dropped, Buckhalter again broached the work session and whether it was proper to conduct business there.
“In the minutes of the July 16 meeting, it did not say that we are recessing,” Buckhalter said. “It said we adjourned.”
“We need to amend those minutes to say we recessed the meeting,” Hicks said.
“The House Bill 1552, which was signed by the governor, covers this,” said Mark Castleberry.
“I’m not going by the governor, I’m going by our own bylaws,” Buckhalter said.
“Bring it up with the governor,” Castleberry retorted.
“I don’t have to bring it up with the governor, I’m going by what it says in the bylaws,” Buckhalter said.
Hicks called for a vote to approve the minutes, cutting off the conversation.
Carpenter reported on the CVB’s financial status. [The financial report is usually handled by Treasurer Bart Wise, but Mr. Wise was not present Monday afternoon. – Brian Jones] The agency’s line of credit will be paid down, and the renewed credit will, in turn, be used to fund the CVB’s portion of the Old River Bridge renovation.
“The original amount [of the line of credit] was $215,000,” she said. “The highest balance we had was $263,000. We paid down over $130,000. Our current balance on the line of credit this fiscal year is $130,792.
“We have gotten both our city and county checks, and both of them have continued to increase,” Carpenter explained. “Our loan expense for the building, as you know, we’re paying $3,500 a month to Bankcorps South. We had some additional money in our checking account, so we paid an additional $50,000 towards our line of credit. That brought us to about where we need to be to pay our share of the bridge.” [Essentially, the CVB paid off its credit card balance so it can use that card to fund the bridge renovation. – Brian Jones]
“Where did you find that $50,000?” Byrd asked.
“We didn’t find it, we’ve just been very tight on our expenses,” Carpenter said. “We’re determined to hold expenses down. For example, where we may have had a $10,000 bill for ads in the past, we had a $200 bill. We have really held down our expenses, and that’s why we had extra money.”
Public Records Access
Hicks asked that CVB employees be given a reasonable amount of time to respond to requests from board members wanting documents.
“We have a public records policy, and anytime a board member wants information, they’re entitled to it,” Hicks said. “A lot of time is being consumed by staff getting these documents. Should not the board member have to give the same amount of advanced notice and give a reasonable time to get what you want? So the [staff] won’t have to stop what they’re doing to answer requests for board members on other matters.”
“How much time?” Byrd asked.
“In the public records law it’s up to seven days,” Hicks said. “Nobody on the staff has failed to get the information, it’s just a matter of giving them some reasonable opportunity to gather it instead of stopping what they’re doing and doing it on the spot.”
“That time is for the public, not for the board members,” Buckhalter said.
“Well, I think we should consider a policy,” Hicks said, “whether it’s 24 hours, 48 hours, 72 hours. What is a reasonable time?”
“There are a couple of other changes I’d like to see,” Carpenter said. “Right now photocopying is 30 cents a page, with a minimum of a dollar. I’d like to see that increased to 50 cents.”
“For board members?” Byrd asked.
“No,” Carpenter said. “While you’re considering changes, I would ask you consider that.”
“Let’s just stick to board members,” Hicks said.
Nadia Dale made a motion, seconded by Buckhalter, to give employees 48 hours to produce information.
“What does the director recommend?” Castleberry asked.
“I’d like up to seven days,” Carpenter said.
“That’s for the public,” Buckhalter said.
“I understand that, but there are those who want 25 items every other day and we can’t…”
Byrd attempted to interrupt, but Carpenter spoke over her.
“Excuse me, I’m talking,” she said. “What we’re doing right now…Amy and I both stop whatever we’re doing to get whatever is needed. I think 48 hours would be the minimum, but I would leave something in there to allow for more time.”
“The items I asked for today I asked for because I had to come in to pick up something else I’d requested,” Byrd said. “If I had gotten my information before then I wouldn’t have had to come by. That’s another thing. Do we need more staff to get the items we need?”
“I think, meaning no disrespect, is I think we need to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you,” Hicks said. “Just be thoughtful.”
“I asked for this last week,” Byrd said. “I came in today, and that’s plenty of time.”
Dale’s motion passed 7-1, with Rissa Lawrence voting no.
Berry Hinds and Grant Guidelines
Columbus citizen Berry Hinds asked the board to rescind an action taken at their board retreat, when $15,000 was awarded to the 2013 Dream 365 event. The event was given its grant under the then-current guidelines; those guidelines are about to change, and Dream 365 would be the only 2013 event to be given a grant under the old rules. [As is discussed below, the cap on awards for tourism events was intended to be lower than $15,000, which was the previous limit. – Brian Jones]
“The question was asked if this was coming from the 2012 budget, and the answer was yes,” Hinds said. “After the vote was taken, everyone realized it was a 2013 event. All government entities rescind actions, and I think in order to be fair to all events you’re funding in 2013 that action should be rescinded until you make the decision on what guidelines you are going to use.”
After Hinds’s request, the board began discussing the new grant guidelines. The CVB will consider grants for two types of events: quality of life and tourism. Quality of life events are smaller, neighborhood festival-style events, and will not face the requirement that they draw visitors from more than 100 miles away. Additionally, 100 percent of the grant monies may be used for entertainment. Only non-profit groups may apply for this funding.
At the beginning of the discussion, Castleberry, who sat on the committee that developed the new guidelines, explained.
“We were unanimous in our support of all points except one,” Castleberry said. “The quality of life events have a maximum of $8,000, and tourism a maximum of $12,000. In our discussion there were varying events on the committee on the amounts. For quality of life there recommendations went as low as $6,000 and as high as $10,000. On tourism events, the range was $10,000 to $15,000.”
Castleberry started the ball rolling with a motion to approve the quality of life event guidelines as submitted, with a maximum grant amount of $8,000. Dale seconded his motion.
“We weren’t going to submit the $8,000 amount,” argued Buckhalter. “We said we were going to bring it before the board and let the board set the amount. That was my understanding. Am I right or wrong?”
“I’m a board member,” Castleberry responded.
“No no no,” Buckhalter said. “You’re making a motion to submit that as written. That wasn’t the recommendation of the committee. We were going to submit it to the board and let the board decide. Am I right or wrong?”
“That’s what I just said five minutes ago,” Castleberry responded. “We’ve got to put a number on the table.”
“That’s not what the committee recommended,” Buckhalter insisted.
“We said we would submit it, and the board would decide,” Lawrence said.
“It seems to me where we are right now is we have a motion and we need to vote,” Hicks said. “Are we also considering sending this out to the applicants and letting them review it before we adopt it?”
“We put out a guideline and then we had a big whoopdo with what people didn’t like about it,” Castleberry said. “So this is the response to that. We had Leroy Brooks’s routine, and so now this is allowing entertainment.”
“So this would be binding on this board unless it’s modified?” Hicks asked.
“Right,” Castleberry said.
“I hate to vote on something right away,” Byrd said. “It would seem that we’re just looking at it, we could give the organizers a chance to review these items before we vote on these numbers. Should we involve the organizers?”
“We’ve been working on this for almost a year,” Castleberry said.
“What’s the objection for sending this to the organizers?” Hicks asked.
“Why rush so much?” Byrd asked.
“What could it possible hurt to send it to the organizers?” Hicks asked.
[It seems to me that giving the event organizers such input is part of the problem. Why let the foxes review the plans for the henhouse? Oh, now I remember! It’s because in many cases the event organizers are the same people who appoint the CVB members. – Brian Jones]
“Most people are going to want the larger pot of money,” Carpenter said, “except those who realize that if you get a $12,000 grant you can only put 25 percent of that to entertainment. That’s only $3,000. Entertainment is a big deal, evidently. If I was an organizer and entertainment was my thing, I wouldn’t want to be in the tourist event, even though it’s more money. I’d want to be in the quality of life, because then I could put as much as I wanted towards entertainment.”
“At least let’s let them get have a look,” Byrd said.
“We make policy,” Carpenter said.
“We do make it, but they’re the ones who will be affected,” Byrd said.
Buckhalter made a motion, seconded by Byrd, to table the guidelines until the next meeting. Their motion failed. Castleberry’s original motion then came to a vote, and passed 5-3, with Hicks, Buckhalter and Byrd voting no.
Lawrence then made a motion, seconded by Castleberry, to set the cap on tourism events at $12,000.
“I have the same objection I had at the committee meeting,” Buckhalter said. “We have already funded one event for 2013 at $15,000. Now we’re setting a policy after the fact to cut…no one else can get $15,000.”
“That was approved under the rules that applied at the time,” Castleberry said. “[Dream 365] got lucky.”
“Didn’t you say we had already budgeted $15,000 for these festivals?” Dale asked.
“No,” Hicks said. “I asked if we had the money to fund these festivals at $15,000. I understood that we do.”
Lawrence’s motion failed 4-3 with one abstention: Castleberry, Lawrence and Myrick voted yes; Dale, Byrd, Buckhalter and Hicks voted no; and Swales abstained.
Dale then made a motion, seconded by Byrd, that the maximum funding be set at $15,000. Her motion passed 6-2, with Castleberry and Lawrence voting no.
Buckhalter brought up the exclusion of the media and the public from the room during last month’s meeting.
During last month’s regular meeting, members of the news media and the public were restricted to sitting in the lobby area of the CVB office, while the meeting took place in another room, visible through a pair of open double doors. This is almost certainly a violation of Mississippi’s open meetings laws, and provoked widespread criticism of the CVB.
“I asked that this be on the agenda because I was concerned about our last meeting,” Buckhalter said. “I wasn’t aware that the press was not allowed in this room with us. After the meeting I talked with [Carpenter] about it and she said that it was because of people scratching the floor by dragging chairs and because of some sniggling behind her. I told her I didn’t think that was right, you’re violating the law. I didn’t know anything about it.”
“I know I wasn’t aware of it,” Hicks said. “They can come up and stand right by me at this meeting or any meeting. None of us were intending not to have people in here. I know I drop my voice sometimes, and it’s hard to hear what I’m saying. I’m trying not to yell, but I’m not trying to drop my voice, either. There was no intent of anybody being excluded. I don’t think the sense of this board has ever been to have secret or unadvertised meetings.”
“It made you look like fools,” interjected Betty Miller, a citizen who was present in the audience. “Absolute fools.”
“It was ridiculous,” Buckhalter said. “I didn’t understand that.”
“The media is welcome, the public is welcome,” Hicks said. “As long as I’m sitting in this chair, anybody can come in and stand by me if they want to. Media or otherwise. If any citizen wants to come and speak before this board, I’m going to be one of the ones voting to let them speak.”
[I’m not going to reopen this particular can of worms, but I am going to say this: It was not at all my impression last month that the board members were ignorant of what was going on. I clearly heard several of them talking about it. At least one reporter stood in the boardroom before the meeting and loudly stated that he disagreed with what was going on. Some of the board members may have been ignorant, but not all of them were. – Brian Jones]
“On that note, I’m surprised to see that there’s a deadline to add things to the agenda,” Buckhalter said. “If that’s the case, why does the board vote to have a deadline to get things on the agenda? Why do we have to get things on the agenda by Thursday?”
“I think one of the reasons was to have a more orderly meeting and show more decorum,” Hicks said.
“That’s not to say that something can’t be added the day we meet, but it will take a majority vote,” Myrick said. “This was we can have an agenda, we can get it to the press, and we can get our information packets earlier.”
“The bottom line for me is that we make an informed judgment,” Hicks said. “We get to consider the issues and think about it and not act extemporaneously in front of the board.”
“If something happens after Thursday and we need to get it on the agenda…I don’t trust the board having to vote because some people on the board aren’t going to want it to come up,” Buckhalter said.
“We act as a board,” Castleberry said. “The individual has no authority. Only board action has authority. If we don’t get our way we just have to be big boys about it.”
[How and when things get added to the agenda is something that seems to come up a lot at governmental board meetings. I’m always a bit amused by the argument that it is a good idea to add things to the agenda at the last minute. I find it hard to believe that, if you’re on a board, you can’t think ahead well enough to get agenda items submitted within a reasonable length of time. I realize that things sometimes come up at the last minute, but I’ve seen many boards where the meat of the agenda is added at the meeting itself. It fascinates me how often it’s the most controversial issues that materialize as the meeting opens. I’m sure that’s a coincidence. – Brian Jones]
The board discussed the disposition of the hotel tax currently collected by the City of Columbus.
“We are funded by the 2 percent restaurant tax,” Carpenter said. “Several people have asked about the hotel tax. A 2 percent tax is levied on the hotels and motels in Columbus and Lowndes County. It is my understanding through House Bill 989 there was an act to levy a convention tax and the proceeds of such tax were to be expended to promote conventions and to construct and maintain convention facilities. Right now there’s about $25,000 a month that’s coming in. We get the restaurant tax and the hotel tax goes to the city.”
“I think the discussion at the executive committee was whether or not we wanted to ask the city to use that money to expand the Trotter,” Hicks said. “Right now it’s going into the general fund. We can’t tell the city what to do, but do we can make a request.”
“The Trotter has long needed some reconstruction,” Dale said.
Dale made a motion, seconded by Myrick, to ask the city to set aside the money.
“I don’t see the point in it,” Buckhalter said. “We can’t tell the city how to spend the money.”
“The convention facility is less than adequate,” Castleberry said. “At least we can get the conversation going.”
The motion passed 6-1 with one abstention. Lawrence voted no and Buckhalter abstained.
In other business, the Legends Concert was listed for discussion on the agenda, but there was no presenter present and the board members seemed disinclined to talk about it.
Carpenter was also given permission to proceed with purchasing audio and video equipment for the boardroom. She explained that microphones would broadcast the audio over the office’s existing speakers, and that it would be clearly audible throughout the meeting room and the lobby. She also mentioned the possibility of video equipment that would enable those in the lobby to watch the meeting on television screens as it is in progress.