At its January 28 meeting, the CVB discussed funding Grillin’ on the River, its worsening financial situation, a request by District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks to change the way grant funding is allocated and, finally, the hiring of a new board attorney. The meeting was stormy and argumentative, with board members once again indulging in vitriol and postponement of problems rather than constructive debate.
Grillin’ on the River, part one
At the beginning of the meeting Harvey Myrick pleaded for the board to fund Grillin’ on the River. At a Nov. 27 meeting, the Grant Committee recommended $8,000 for Grillin’ on the River, but, at the December regular meeting, the full board tabled the matter over concerns about Myrick’s involvement. Myrick founded Grillin’ on the River, and, until last year, served on its executive committee.
“When I was appointed to this board in September 2011 I realized there could possibly be a conflict of interest,” he said. “I talked with the ethics commissioner in Jackson and got a verbal commitment that, as long as I was not doing certain things, it was no problem. It got closer and closer to the time…and I took the high road. Without a written ethics commission opinion I cancelled, which is very hard for me to do. I worked hard for five years to get that festival where it was. Once you cancel a festival it takes harder work to get it back on its feet and make people understand you’re going to have it.
“I thought the issue was dead until it was tabled last month,” he said. “I brought each of you a copy of the ethics opinion. It says that as long as I’m not monetarily gaining from Grillin’ on the River that there is no problem. It is suggested that I recuse myself from any discussion or votes concerning it, which I have been doing up to this point.”[The opinion, issued in March 2012, reads in part: “Since [Myrick] receives no income from the non-profit corporation and receives no compensation in connection with the event, [Myrick] will not have a prohibited interest in any grants, funding or other transactions between the CVB and the non-profit corporation or event. Therefore no violation will occur if the CVB funds the event…Pursuant to Section 25-4-105(1) the requestor may not use his position with the CVB board to obtain or attempt to obtain any monetary benefit for himself or a ‘business with which he is associated.’ A non-profit receiving public funds is a business…However, the non-profit corporation is no longer a business with which the requestor is associated…Furthermore, the non-profit corporation will not qualify as a business with which the requestor is associated simply because he volunteers his time to the non-profit and takes a personal interest in the event. Therefore the requestor is not obligated to recuse himself from CVB actions which would benefit the non-profit.” The report went on to say that, while not required to do so, it would be a good idea for Mr. Myrick to recuse himself in order to avoid the appearance of impropriety. – Brian Jones]
Myrick said an outside organization would handle any funds awarded to Grillin’ on the River. “I have asked the Lowndes Community Foundation, a 501(c)3 group, to be my fiduciary,” Myrick said. [A 501(c)3 is a non-profit organization. – Brian Jones] “Basically they will be a pass-through. They will receive any money coming in and they will write all the checks. I have had some discussion…one of my ways of growing Grillin’ was traveling to other contests. I have in the past received compensation for the gas. I have since September of 2011 not been compensated for travel time. The public perception of a board member receiving grant money…I want to tell board members that I have done everything I can and I will be very disappointed if this board votes midstream to not fund Grillin’ on the River.”
“We have a letter from Leroy Brooks where he changes his operations,” Leon Ellis said. “I don’t know what the difference is between what he’s doing and what you’re doing. The problem I have with this funding is that some of these people are writing checks—”
“Mr. Ellis, that is on the agenda for later,” Board President DeWitt Hicks said, interrupting Ellis midsentence. “Let’s defer that until later so we don’t cover it twice.”
“Let me address that somewhat,” Myrick began, but Hicks asked him to wait, too.
Treasurer Bart Wise reported that collections are still below expectations.
“We are still seeing a decrease in both city and county tax receipts,” Wise said. “They are leveling off, but they are still a great deal below what we have budgeted. On a positive side, we ended the quarter in the black. I think the staff should be commended for that. We are $6,207 in the black.” [Call me crazy, but I don’t think a government agency should be congratulated for staying in the black. It’s called “good stewardship,” and it’s part of the job. – Brian Jones]
Grillin’, part two
Myrick returned to his point that he would not be handling money personally.
“To clarify what you were asking, Leon, that is what the fiduciary would be for,” Myrick said. “The Lowndes Community Foundation will hold money and write checks. They’re a check and balance. They will not approve cash payments or anything of that nature. They will be my watchdog.”
“Let me see if I can read something that’s part of your comments from [Mississippi Ethics Commission head Tom Hood],” Ellis said. “ ‘Therefore public servants shall endeavor to show conduct that will not give rise to the suspicion among the public that they are likely to be engaged in acts in violation of the law and that will not reflect unfavorably upon the state and local government.’ In some of the festivals we’ve sponsored, there have been checks that have been questioned. They were legitimate questions, and we never got answers to them. That makes the public suspicious. I think we need to eliminate those kinds of things.”
“Is that question directed at me or is it a question directed at all festivals?” Myrick asked.
“It’s all festivals,” Ellis said.
“I agree,” Myrick said. “My comment to that is that we’re changing policies, we’re changing the way we do business in the middle of the stream. I would be very disappointed if I get singled out to start a new practice. I’m not sure that I need to at this point I need to sit at this table. I will recuse myself.”
Castleberry still had questions, however.
“We were all put on this board for a reason,” he said. “Hopefully that means that we are contributing and participating in this community. Volunteering at events is one thing. Is this…whose event is this? Are you still Grillin’ on the River?” “No, I’m not,” Myrick said. “I resigned as president and from the executive board. I am strictly a volunteer trying to organize, with my 27 years experience in the barbeque world, an event for our community. Mr. Chuck Cook is president.”
“You’re not on the 501(c)3?” Castleberry asked.
“That’s where the fiduciary comes in,” Myrick said. “You may be referring to a document that was filed with the secretary of state in 2006, and yes, my name is on there.”
“I missed something there,” Castleberry said. “Are you going forward as part of the 501(c)3?”
“Grillin’ on the River is not now nor has it ever been a 501(c)3,” Myrick said. “That is where the Lowndes Community group comes in. They will be the 501(c)3 that the festival will be under.”
“When you submitted your application for funding didn’t you submit your copy of your 501(c)3 for review? Harvey Myrick as Grillin’ on the River?” Rissa Lawrence asked.
“I did,” he said. “It was required within the new guidelines. I didn’t know this issue would’ve come up or it could have been corrected at that point in time. Midstream things are changing.”
At that point, Myrick left the room.
“We require all recipients to be a 501(c)3,” Executive Director Nancy Carpenter said. “He said he had never been one. We do have paperwork, I know we have that paperwork.”
“It sounds like the foundation they’re going through is simply an accounting function,” Wise said. “It doesn’t sound like there’s an oversight function at all. I don’t know if that solves anything.”
“Since there’s so much that we don’t know now…the next matter on the agenda is a complaint by Supervisor Leroy Brooks,” Hicks said. “I have read his letter and he is proposing changes to guidelines. Is there a motion that we refer this to the Grant Committee?”
“Should we call [Myrick] back in here?” Lawrence asked.
“What I was going to ask is that if they Grant Committee convene then the matter of Harvey Myrick be referred to them as well and let’s get all the facts straight,” Hicks said.
“I think you’re talking about two separate items,” Wise said. “One is to raise the amount on festivals and community events, and [Myrick’s] question is one of can he participate at all.”
“I recognize they are separate issues, but I think the committee would be a good idea,” Castleberry said. “I still don’t understand [Myrick’s] relationship. I think getting hard documentation is a good idea.”
“I have seen Mr. Brooks’s letter, which is on board of supervisors stationary,” Ellis said. “I have heard what Mr. Myrick has to say. If we disapprove [Myrick’s] then we have to disapprove Mr. Brooks’s, and vice-versa. I don’t see the difference.”
“This board has the prerogative to refer this to an open meeting of the Grant Committee,” Hicks said. “If there are going to be any modifications for this board to consider, it seems only fair the Grant Committee consider it and made a recommendation to us.”
“If we change the rules, are we going to open it up to the ones we’ve already funded?” Ellis asked. “It’s only fair.”
“We’ve already voted on several, and we can’t go back,” Buckhalter said. “We can’t change those.”
“I’m ready to deal with this,” Ellis said. “I make a motion that we don’t fund [Grillin’ on the River].”
Wise seconded the motion, which passed 5-3, with Lawrence, Castleberry and Hicks voting no.
Myrick returned to the room, and Hicks told him the festival would not be funded. Myrick did not comment.
Last month District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks came before the CVB to complain about their new grant guidelines. He also attacked new accountability procedures as being unfair. At the end of his diatribe, Brooks turned down the $15,000 in funding he was being offered.
This month Brooks submitted a letter asking to meet with the Grant Committee to ask that the grant guidelines be reworked yet again. He also promised to change the way Juneteenth does business.
Brooks’s letter, which is dated January 24 and written on what appears to be his official stationary, reads:
“It has become increasingly clear the Ad Hoc Committee of the Columbus-Lowndes County Convention and Visitors Bureau responsible for developing the funding guidelines will not convene a meeting with the Festival Organizers prior to the next meeting of the board. We are very disappointed by the lackadaisical attitude of some board members in trying to find a reasonable solution to the disagreement concerning the funding for local festivals. The failure to resolve this matter in an amiable way will have an adverse impact on the perception of your board and the effort to promote ‘racial good will’ in our community.
“It is imperative that this matter be resolved as soon as possible. Jeff and I are receiving calls from vendors and other individuals interested in the festivals, since they are held in June and July. Mr. Karriem [sic] decision to request funding this year is predicated on getting this issue resolved in a manner that will help facilitate the success of our festivals. As festival organizers, we understand the cultural and financial impact these events have on our community. They have become an integral part of our community. Therefore it is our responsibility to work diligently to make sure they are not destroyed because of politics and personality clashes.
“Since we did not have the opportunity to meet with the Ad Hoc Committee, attached you will find our proposal. Hopefully this will address the board’s concerns regarding the festivals.”
Mr. Brooks’s proposals included no more cash payments with taxpayer funding, and barring elected officials from appearing before the CVB to ask for funds. However, the officials would still remain involved with the festivals.
He also asks that tourism festivals be funded at $15,000 and quality of life at $12,000, with no spending cap on entertainment. Currently tourism festivals may only spend 25 percent of their grant on entertainment, and the quality of life events may only receive $8,000.
While the CVB seemed, earlier in the meeting, to be ready to take a stand against Brooks’s demands, they quickly sank into their usual stew of indecision and contradiction and ended up merely deferring a decision.
Castleberry began by saying he was not deliberately avoiding meeting with Brooks.
“The only reason we haven’t met is the because of the holidays,” Castleberry said. “There was no intent…I wasn’t aware of a pressing need. It’s the holidays, and I have a business to run.”
“I think we all understand that,” Hicks said.
Ellis made a motion to cease funding any festival whose representatives or organizers are public officials. Lawrence seconded his motion.
“Part of his recommendation—” Hicks began to say, but Ellis spoke over him.
“I make a motion we stop funding them,” Ellis repeated.
Comedy immediately ensued.
“One discussion I have is that…the supervisors are asking to meet with the Grant Committee,” said Whirllie Byrd. “I think he should be afforded at least that courtesy. We should meet with the festival organizers and hear what they have to say and incorporate their ideas.”
“Didn’t he already meet with the grant committee one time?” Ellis asked.
“No,” Byrd said. “Not for what he’s talking about.”
“Well, he’s changed the request,” Ellis said. “The problem is, to me, he has the same issue as with Grillin’ on the River. I have the same problem with these festivals. When you have festival organizers writing checks to their brothers and their other family members and things like that, that leads to a suspicious situation. We need to get that solved. The only way I know to solve it is to quit funding them.”
“Instead of just quit funding, it seems just from me reading [his letter] that he wants to just meet with the Grant Committee,” Byrd said. “Does the Grant Committee have a problem with meeting with Mr. Brooks?”
“Is there a meeting scheduled?” Myrick asked.
“I was late getting with the committee members, but we are trying to establish a date,” Castleberry said. “We will huddle up after this meeting and determine a date to meet. I think the intent of the meeting is an open, public meeting.” [Let’s all take a moment to remember that last month Mr. Brooks specifically stated that he wanted to “sit down in a back room away from the press and figure out how to fund these festivals.” – Brian Jones]
“I think that we should meet with them to discuss this,” Buckhalter said. “We should give them…my understanding is that they didn’t have any input into it.”
“In the prior December we have in writing his requests,” Lawrence said. “In December 2011 he and his other Alliance of Festival Organizers presented a list of their requests. We knew what their requests were, and we tried our very best to please everyone.”
“I think they did not meet with us—” Buckhalter began, but Lawrence cut him off.
“How many times are we going to meet with them?” Lawrence asked.
“I’m not talking about meeting with one individual,” Buckhalter said. “I’m talking about meeting with festival organizers and listen to what they have to say and then make our own decision.”
“I don’t see a problem if every festival organizer can have input,” Lawrence said.
“That’s what I’m trying to do,” Buckhalter said.
“Do any of y’all have any problem with the letter Mr. Brooks sent on Board of Supervisors stationary?” Ellis asked. “He’s a member of a board that appoints members to this board. Does that not…do you have a problem with any of that?”
“Is this…that’s not board of supervisors stationery,” Byrd said.[The letter clearly has “Supervisor Leroy Brooks” emblazoned across the top of it. That being said, there is no county seal. I think Mr. Ellis’s point is a valid one, though. – Brian Jones]
Carpenter and several board members began all talking at once, but it was Buckhalter whose voice cut through the fray.
“I don’t think that’s supervisor stationary,” he hollered. “I think it’s his own personal stationary that he has as supervisor of District 5.”
“And you don’t have a problem with that?” Ellis asked.
“Not if it’s his personal stationary, no,” Buckhalter responded, sounding somewhat defensive.
“Let’s have some order,” Hicks said.
“I’d like to bring up one thing,” Carpenter said. “It bothers me that six events have already been funded for this year, and now we’re going to change the rules.”
“Amen to that,” Myrick said.
“Nobody said we’re going to change the rules,” Buckhalter said. “We said meet with them. That’s all I said.” “But the motion on the floor is to stop funding any event that has public officials,” Dale said. “My concern is that we already approved funding for a few.” [Artesia Days, Crawford Cotton Boll Festival and Townsend Blues Festival were all funded last month. – Brian Jones]
“We’re not doing that retroactively,” Hicks said. “If I’m understanding it correctly, it would be no more applications by elected officials.”
“He didn’t go far enough,” Lawrence said. “It needs to say that they not write any checks, that they not handle any money. That needs to be added to it.”
“I think you need to have a meeting with the Grant Committee to make it very explicit about what you require and what you’re going for,” Hicks said.
Hicks tried to call for a vote, but Wise interjected.
“A while back when I was on the Link board, [Castleberry] was on the Link board, we caught all kind of grief from this board for us serving on that although we received no benefit at all,” Wise said. “We stepped down. [Myrick] is in a similar position, and I don’t see how the elected officials are in the same boat we are. I think it’s only fair to be consistent.”
Lawrence made an amendment to the motion that it be effective as of October 1, 2013. Dale seconded the motion.
“I thought there was already a policy that elected officials not come before the board,” Dale said.
“There was no policy, there was an understanding,” Buckhalter said. “Between the elected officials and the board there is that understanding, but I could be wrong.” [Somebody clearly didn’t get the memo. It is not uncommon for the mayor, city councilmen and supervisors to address the board, and they are nearly always in the audience when decisions are to be made about their pet projects. – Brian Jones]
“According to the IRS regulations for tax exempt status,” Castleberry said, “officials are absolutely prohibited from participating or intervening in anything that takes advantage of tax exempt status.”
Hicks again tried to call for a vote, and was again interrupted, this time by Myrick. He suggested the board table the issue.
“I personally feel that it’s right not to change our policies in midstream,” he said. “I feel that it is an issue that, if it doesn’t go into effect until October 2013 we may consider tabling and finding out some facts. We’ve got 10 months until it goes into effect.”
“Are you making a motion to table?” Hicks asked.
“No, I don’t want to cloud the water any further,” Myrick said. “We’ve already got so many motions.” Lawrence’s motion, which dealt only with the effective date, passed 7-2, with Hicks and Wise voting no. Discussion returned to Ellis’s original motion to not fund festivals put on by public officials, and immediately bogged down again as Byrd and Lawrence began to bicker.
“It sounds like this is getting so political,” Byrd said. “I believe [the organizers] need to meet with the grant committee and set some ground rules. It seems like this letter is a start to try to do some reconciliation. Elected officials sometimes volunteer with festivals. Ms. Lawrence, you volunteered with Caledonia Day.”
“No, I do not,” Lawrence said.
“Yes, you do,” Byrd said. “You were in the paper once saying something about Caledonia Day…but it’s easy to volunteer. I’m a volunteer.”
“Now, Whirllie, I know that you told people that they need to investigate me because I am heavily involved in Caledonia Day,” Lawrence said, but Byrd immediately interrupted her with heated denials.
“That is a total lie,” she said, “an outright lie. Your involvement is not important to me.”
“We will have absolutely none of that,” Hicks said as Byrd and Lawrence continued to talk over him.
Once order was restored, Byrd continued with her denials.
“That’s a total lie,” she said again. “I don’t know where you get your information from…your involvement is not that important to me, it’s not important to me. We are all volunteers to a certain extent. To make decisions without the input of the grant committee is what I have a problem with.”
“My concern is that sometimes you have to look at the big picture,” Buckhalter said. “An elected official has more clout than the average person and can go out and solicit big entertainment. [This comment drew outright laughter from some spectators. – Brian Jones] The mayor or the supervisor has more clout than I do and can go to these places and solicit big entertainers. Sometimes you need those people in place, not necessarily at the helm, but in place to secure things that you need to secure. That’s the way it’s always been.” “If they’ve got lots of clout, then they ought to be able to raise funds and their festivals should be self-sustaining,” Lawrence said.
“Well the Link needs to be self-sustaining,” Buckhalter shot back.
“I think festivals have a part in this community and have a right to come before the grant committee,” Hicks said. “I read this letter in a different light than some of you did. It came as a surprise to me. I read it as an attempt by elected officials as wanting to go on record as not being organizers and not putting pressure on the board members. It’s time we had some reconciliation in this community and not as much bloodletting as we have in the past.”
“I want to make it explicit that the elected officials can participate but cannot be leaders,” Dale said.
Myrick made a motion to table, and his motion passed 6-3. Ellis, Lawrence and Wise voted no.[In 2011 the CVB announced their intention to overhaul grant guidelines in an attempt to eliminate some of the more obviously shady ongoing practices, such as the large number of cash payments made by festival organizers. Mr. Brooks sent in a letter in late 2011 with a list of what amounted to demands, and the CVB obligingly reconsidered many of their planned reforms. When the new guidelines went into effect last year Mr. Brooks threw several public temper tantrums, alleging that he and other festival organizers had had no voice in the process. He repeated this claim ad nauseum during his performance last month. That claim is, under the circumstances, laughable. Mr. Brooks has already had entirely too much input.
While I applaud Mr. Brooks and his fellow politicians for trying to change, it is too little, too late. Mr. Brooks’s letter does little other than illustrate his continued inability to see that seated politicians have no business going before a board they appoint and asking for tax money to fund their personal pet projects. Elected officials should have nothing to do with festivals that receive tax money. Period. They have no business dictating how grants are awarded. Period. His claim that the issue is injuring “racial good will” is similarly ridiculous. Mr. Brooks is the only person who had made race an issue here. It is not now, nor has it ever been, racist to expect accountability and honesty, nor is it bigoted to expect a public board to be free from patronage.
It is sad that the CVB is too spineless to stand up to Mr. Brooks and his ilk. I fully expect them to cave yet again, and then the whole comedy will continue to perpetuate itself. – Brian Jones]
The board briefly discussed hiring a new board attorney following the resignation of Chris Latimer. Latimer was hired February 27, 2012. He resigned last month following a stormy meeting during which he told the board he was “sick of the fighting.”
Carpenter suggested the CVB hire Chris Hemphill of Dunn and Hemphill.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought after we had the rather abrupt resignation after our last meeting by Chris Latimer,” she said. “I found out today a person that is willing, Chris Hemphill. He originially was with the Colom Law Firm, and now is a partner with Dunn and Hemphill. He has been the board attorney for Noxubee County for right at 20 years.”
Lawrence made a motion to hire him, and was seconded by Castleberry. Predictably, the discussion almost immediately devolved into chaos.
“I think we’re being a little abrupt here,” Buckhalter said. “We still have a committee in place that was set up to hire Latimer. I was not aware that we would consider this at this meeting, and I think it’s wrong to try to shove an attorney down our throats. We need to look at that. It’s the board’s attorney.”
“We need an attorney, and I’m not trying to shove anybody down your throat,” Carpenter said.
“I’m just hearing of this for the first time now,” Buckhalter said. “It doesn’t need to be done this way. We need to advertise for an attorney.”
“We don’t have to advertise—” Carpenter began.
“I know we don’t have to, but we need to,” Buckhalter said, interrupting her.
“We did that before and it took months,” Carpenter continued. “We need somebody now to give us good advice.”
“In all fairness to other attorneys, it needs to be done the correct way,” Buckhalter said.
“All attorneys are not dying to be our attorney,” Carpenter shot back. “I have heard a lot of comments—”
“So have I,” Buckhalter interjected.
“—and I think we should be grateful that he wants to do it,” Carpenter said, soldiering on.
Several people all began talking at once, and then Hicks attempted to restore order.
“I have been advocating for months that we need an attorney here at this table, so I agree that time is an issue here,” Dale said. “But I think we need the committee to handle it.”
“I think we should have an attorney here at every meeting, and there should be a cap on his fee,” Ellis said. “I want to know what it’s going to cost every month on the front end.”
“I want more than one to consider,” Byrd said.
Buckhalter made a motion to table, and the motion passed 5-3, with Castleberry, Lawrence and Myrick voting no and Byrd abstaining.
Hicks then asked Buckhalter, Castleberry and Myrick to form a committee to explore the matter further.
The Grant Committee will meet February 12 at 6 p.m. at the CVB building to discuss funding guidelines with the festival organizers. The meeting is open to the public.[There was a lot that I had to leave out this week, lest I write a Lord-of-the-Rings-sized tome. One thing I wish I had had more time to explore was Mr. Ellis’s suggestion that the board measure the economic impact of each festival and use that data to decide future funding levels. “We’ve spent over $8 million since 2007 and we have little to show for it,” he said. Ms. Carpenter told him she was trying to do exactly that via surveys, and after that the discussion seemed to lose traction. I for one would love to see how many people some of these festivals bring in from out of town. I bet it would be illuminating reading. – Brian Jones] 0