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CVB Discusses Vehicle Use, Questions Juneteenth and Southside Festival Expenditures

Leon Ellis is sworn in by Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders as the county at-large CVB board
appointee replacing George Swales, who stepped down from the position. Ellis’s son and wife are to his left. Boardmember Bernard Buckhalter looks on.

By Brian Jones

At their Sept. 17 meeting, the Convention and Visitors Bureau swore in new board member Leon Ellis, heard an opinion on vehicle use, and discussed the final reports for the Juneteenth and Southside festivals. The board also awarded $5,000 to the MSMS Foundation.

[This meeting was the first since the CVB updated their boardroom with microphones and cameras. The meeting was projected onto several large television screens, and the microphones were broadcast throughout the building. It worked pretty well as long as the trustees actually remembered to speak into their microphones; being microphone shy is hardly unique to the CVB members, however. – Brian Jones]

The meeting opened with the swearing in of Leon Ellis. Ellis was appointed September 14 by the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors to replace George Swales, who resigned his post over the summer. [Although he agreed to stick around through the August meeting. – Brian Jones]

After Ellis was welcomed to the board, President DeWitt Hicks laid down the law about members of the public speaking out of turn.

“Last time we had a spectator who interrupted the meeting three times,” Hicks said. “Two times defaming the board, and the third time using profanity. That is a crime. This board will not tolerate that. Next time we’ll recess the meeting and have that person arrested. Anybody who wants to appear before the board and be on the agenda, we welcome your comments, your criticism, or anything you have to say, but we will not tolerate that.”

[Mr. Hicks is referring to citizen Betty Miller, who spoke out from the audience several times during last month’s meeting. The third remark to which he refers was while the board was discussing their July attempt to bar the citizens and the news media from the meeting room. Ms. Miller said, “It made you look like fools. Absolute fools.” I don’t remember any kind of profanity. I checked with Packet columnist Ron Williams, who was also at that meeting, and he didn’t remember anything vulgar, either. – Brian Jones]

Vehicle Use

Attorney Chris Latimer appeared to address appropriate vehicle use. Board member Whirrlie Byrd had questioned Executive Director Nancy Carpenter’s use of the CVB car at several previous meetings.

“During the June 18 meeting there was a discussion about the vehicle,” he said. “After that discussion I was asked by [Carpenter] to research the issue and come to the board retreat on July 24 to report on it. I did that, and at the beginning of my presentation the board voted to postpone that issue and take it up at a later date. August 20 the board voted for me to come and report on the issue today, so here I am.

“The CVB is a public entity established by the Legislature and funded by taxpayer dollars,” he said. “It is my opinion that everyone affiliated with the CVB must comply with public entity law with respect to the CVB vehicle. A person employed by the CVB may only use the vehicle in discharge of their work duties. They may not use it for personal use as that is an impermissible donation. The board may make the call whether the vehicle may be taken home, if the vehicle use will be a benefit to the organization or if the employee will be on call.

“There was also a unique wrinkle in that the board had allowed the previous director via contract to use the vehicle for personal use,” Latimer said. “The question was could the board contract around the general public entity law. There is an attorney general’s opinion that says that the answer to that is no.”

“In June when the board voted that the vehicle could be used for personal use…how does that vote stand?” Byrd asked. “Are we in violation?”

“The vote was in error,” Latimer said.

“I don’t remember voting,” Hicks interjected.

[According to my notes, the board did vote on a motion by Byrd to restrict the vehicle to official business only. Her motion failed 5-3, with Byrd, Bernard Buckhalter and Nadia Dale voting yes. – Brian Jones]

Rissa Lawrence made a motion, seconded by Bart Wise, to allow Carpenter to take the vehicle home and be on call.
“What is considered on call for a tourism director?” Byrd asked.

“We have firemen and policemen and other people who are on call 24/7,” Hicks said. “If I understand it, she gets calls at many times. Last Sunday, she had five women who called her on Sunday afternoon and she had to come to the Tennessee Williams home to deal with visitors.”

“I’m also on call for the CVB building and the Williams home,” Carpenter said. “I’ve been up here many times throughout the night because someone set the alarm off or someone was shaking the door. I am on call for that purpose, and there are many times when I got to CAFB or to Jackson when I am coming home late at night and I would prefer to be able to drive home.”

“What liability would be incurred in case of an accident?” Byrd asked.

“Anytime you have permitted use, that vehicle is insured against liability,” Hicks said.

Lawrence’s motion was approved 6-1, with Byrd voting no. [Board members Harvey Myrick and Mark Castleberry were not present. – Brian Jones]

Juneteenth and Southside
Festival Closeout

When the Juneteenth and Southside festivals came up for final approval, several board members were concerned about checks being made out to cash.

[When a festival gets a grant, half of the money is paid up front and the rest is paid once a report is filed with the CVB. The questions here pertain to the closeout reports. – Brian Jones]

“There are a lot of checks made out to cash instead of a person receiving a payment,” Ellis said.

“They have to pay entertainers in cash,” Bernard Buckhalter explained. “They don’t accept checks.”

“I noticed that same things, but there are cash receipts attached to the invoices,” Nadia Dale said.

Lawrence questioned how District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, who organizes the Juneteenth Festival, was spending profit earned by the festival.

“Last year [Brooks] showed a profit of $6,046,” Lawrence said. “I don’t see anything showing where that money went. There is nothing shown brought forward for startup money. This year he has a profit of $3,670. This is non-profit, so I just wondered what was going to happen to it. He needed a loan to put Juneteenth on, I don’t know why he needed that if he had $6,000 left over from last year. Is profit something we need to be concerned about?”

“As I recall, and I’m just going on my recollection, Mr. Brooks explained that the profit would be used to fund the Next Generation Mini-Farm,” Byrd said.

“He got a grant to fund that,” Lawrence said. “I don’t understand where all the money goes. He’s supposed to be non-profit. There’s money that he doesn’t show where it’s being spent. I’d like to know where it is.”

“We are only concerned with the money that we give him,” Buckhalter said. “Not the money he gets from anywhere else.”
“We gave him 65 percent of his total budget, so I think we need to be pretty concerned,” Lawrence said.

“I don’t think that’s our concern,” Buckhalter said. “We had said if there’s a profit left, we hoped it would be used as seed money.”

“That’s what I want them to do,” Lawrence said. “But they’re not showing they’re bringing it forward. I’m not singling Mr. Brooks out, I asked the same thing with Tennessee Williams, with Market Street, Caledonia Day. If they had a profit the year before, they need to show it the next year.”

“I would agree if we put public money into something and it shows the profit, we have a right to know what happens with that money,” Ellis said.

“During his presentation, he explained that the money is used to fund the youth garden,” Buckhalter said.
“That’s good, but we need to see where that money went,” Ellis said. “We need to see some receipts or something. Otherwise we don’t know what we’re funding.”

“We’re doing things differently henceforth,” Carpenter said. “We have made it very clear that they won’t be allowed to make cash payments. The new guidelines will go into effect next year and everyone will adhere to those guidelines if they want grant funding.”

In spite of the questions, the board approved paying Juneteenth the balance of their money on a 4-3 vote. Ellis, Lawrence and Wise voted no.

The cash question was raised again with the Southside Festival.

“This is one that really opens a can of worms,” Wise said. “We’re talking about cash payments. We were told that entertainment would only come if you pay them in cash. You see a lot of cash receipts paid to a variety of other people where a check could have easily been issued. There are checks made out that are payable to the person who organized the festival, and that’s not good at all. There is no real check and balance or way to follow the money.”

“I saw that, and I think the check was made out to himself for in kind labor,” Buckhalter said. “This is the kind of stuff that the guidelines will clean up from now on.”

“This is the last year that a report like this will be accepted,” Carpenter said. “If there are payments to the director of the festival, we are not going to approve it. They will not get the second half of their money.”

The payout was approved 4-3, with Ellis, Lawrence and Wise voting no.

MSMS Foundation

Wade Leonard, MSMS staff assistant for recruitment, asked the board to donate $5,000 to the MSMS Foundation.
“MSMS is a huge part of the city of Columbus,” he said. “We bring 200 kids to Columbus every year; most of our students do not come from the Golden Triangle. We are trying to raise $40,000 for the MSMS Foundation, and we are asking that you put in $5,000.”

Ellis made a motion to donate the $5,000, and was seconded by Byrd. His motion passed unanimously.

 

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3 comments

  1. Oh, Mr. Hicks, falling back on his age old threats. Sure, disturbances of a government meeting, from the public in attendance, isn’t appropriate, but with his habit of making just as inappropriate false accusations and threats of arrest, Mr. Hicks isn’t speaking from a higher moral or ethical level.
    Give your threats a rest Mr. Hicks and stop making false accusations when you do threaten someone. Given your past history, you have little credibility to speak from, so why don’t you stop making it worse?
    Mr. Jones, I really would like to make these government board meetings, but nowhere can I find a central place where the public can view meetings dates and times for the city boards. Is there such a resource out there somewhere? I asked this question several times over the years, even as far back as when Mr. Hicks was city attorney, but I never got a rational answer from anyone in city government. I was always told that individual board set their own meeting times and dates, and each board makes its own decision whether to put a notice out in the local press (that usually meant small notice somewhere in the Dispatch).
    I’d really, really, really like to find out ahead of time when the CVB board meets so I can be there with my video camera. It’d be just like the old days, Mr. Hicks and I in the same room, in a public meeting and threats flying. The mere thought brings tears to my eyes.

  2. JohnnyPhillipMorris

    With all this skullduggery from ethically-challenged public officials, including, lawyers, CPD, LCSO, the judiciary and county workers, one wonders how any defendant can ever get a fair trial in Lowndes county.

    It’s time for a RICO investigation, as is being conducted in Forrest county where its police department,city judiciary and recent gubernatorial candidate Mayor Johnny Dupree are all targets of an FBI investigation into corruption. There IS an honest Sheriff in Forrest county…he is not involved in the FBI probe.

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