BY BRIAN JONES
The Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau refused to fund Juneteenth on a 5-4 vote at a stormy April 15 meeting.
The item was removed from the agenda at the beginning of the meeting over the strenuous protests of Bernard Buckhalter and Whirllie Byrd, both of whom accused the other trustees of being motivated by personal vendettas and racism.
At that same meeting District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, who is the major force behind Juneteenth, indulged in an angry tirade in which he called those who questioned or opposed him racists and attacked the tourism grant’s limit of 25 percent on entertainment spending. After some sharp exchanges with board members – including unsubtle reminders that he helped to appoint them to the board, and would vote against them in the future – Mr. Brooks refused the grant money, claiming that it would be impossible to put on the event with the existing strictures.
Brooks, in an appearance at a February open forum for festival organizers, again stated that he had no desire for the CVB’s money: “There’s no reason to take money that’s going to strangle me,” he said. “If the guidelines that you’ve got now are in place, there is no reason to come back.” Brooks also swore that he would never come before the CVB again.
Come back Juneteenth did, however.
Cindy Lawrence, who is on the Juneteenth board, came to the CVB at their March 18 meeting to ask for $8,000 in quality of life funding. Ms. Lawrence resubmitted the same quality of life application that was turned in last year, even though it no longer matched the event; while answering questions from the board, she admitted that the “downsized” festival would only be one day long. This, in itself, invalidates the grant request as events must be at least two days long to qualify for funds. She was also questioned on the fact that the budget proposal showed a $9,000-plus loss. In the end the matter was tabled to allow Juneteenth to come back with a revised budget and a plan for at least a two-day event.
A special meeting to deal with Juneteenth’s request was called after CVB Chairman DeWitt Hicks received a letter from the organizers, dated March 20, urging them to make a decision quickly. A special meeting was held March 25 specifically for that issue, and, on a 4-3 vote, the board declined to fund it. Buckhalter, Byrd and Hicks voted yes; Dale and Myrick were not present.
Mr. Buckhalter put Juneteenth back on the agenda for this month’s meeting. I suppose the thinking was that, with the full board present, the vote would come out differently. – Brian Jones]
At the very beginning of the meeting, just after the prayer and before the agenda was adopted, Rissa Lawrence made a motion to remove Juneteenth from the agenda.
“I think they’ve presented enough,” Lawrence said.
Hicks called for a second, but Buckhalter was already objecting.
“I asked that that be put on the agenda, and I don’t think removing it is proper,” Buckhalter said. “That’s not a proper motion.”
“Yes, you can make a motion to remove something from the agenda,” said Board Attorney Chris Hemphill. “That is a proper motion at this point.”
Leon Ellis seconded Lawrence’s motion, and Buckhalter immediately launched into an emotional appeal for funding.
“I don’t think we should remove it from the agenda,” Buckhalter said. “That is not the only grant we’ve discussed more than once. I think it is due the same respect as any other application before this board. I don’t think it’s a proper motion. It may be legal, but it’s wrong. With that said, I don’t know what it is, if it’s a personal thing, but it seems like every time something comes up that concerns Mr. Brooks, Ms. Lawrence opposes it regardless of what it is and several of you oppose it. It’s not about Mr. Brooks, it’s about the community. That’s what Juneteenth is about. You need to put your personal feelings aside and not let your personal feelings interfere with this board. I don’t like a lot of things that people do, but I don’t let it affect my focus on this board. This is not about Leroy Brooks, and that’s what I’m trying to get you to see. This is about Juneteenth. It’s about the community. That’s what Juneteenth’s about.”
“I don’t have any agenda against Mr. Brooks,” Lawrence said. “Mr. Brooks was awarded $15,000 as a tourism event and he rejected it. The board voted and he came back again and asked for $8,000. If I’m counting correctly, Juneteenth has been before this board five times. This will be the sixth time. If I’m correct, Mr. Brooks’s is the name on the paperwork for Juneteenth as far as the [non-profit organization]. It’s not about Mr. Brooks. It’s about Juneteenth and the festival organizers coming…I don’t know how many times we allow them to come, but Cindy Lawrence came and she said they had scaled it back to a one-day event. I asked if they had redone the budget and she said no. I don’t understand how you can have the same budget for a three-day event and a one-day event. We voted it down because it was only a one-day event. Then they were allowed to come back again saying it is still a three-day event. Two of the board members were not here, but it was voted not to give them the money. I think they have had plenty of opportunities to present.”
Byrd also objected.
“There were two board members who were not at that meeting,” Byrd said. “I think it was important to schedule the special meeting so that at least the members of the executive committee could be here. The executive committee members should have had a priority. That is a reason to revisit it.”
“I was not at the specially called meeting, but I had a conflict,” Myrick said. “My understanding is that the meeting was called to reconsider the vote on Juneteenth and the board voted at that meeting. It looks like if it’s on the agenda today it’s a reconsideration of a reconsideration. That’s going pretty far.”
Hicks called for a vote, and Lawrence’s motion passed 5-4, with Buckhalter, Byrd, Dale and Hicks voting no.
Afterward Hicks suggested the board consider a policy limiting reconsiderations.
“It’s not on the agenda, but I think when we meet to discuss policy we consider having a limitation on re-applications,” Hicks said. “Make it some period of time so we don’t have four or five votes on one matter.”
“I think we went back and reconsidered Grillin’ on the River several times,” Buckhalter said. [Grillin’ on the River has been kicked around nearly as many times as Juneteenth has. On November 19, 2012, the board considered a number of grant proposals, including both Juneteenth and Grillin’ on the River. On December 17 Grillin’ on the River’s request was tabled on a motion by Bart Wise, who was concerned about Mr. Myrick’s involvement; Mr. Myrick founded Grillin’ on the River, served on its executive board and is heavily involved with it as a volunteer. At the CVB’s January 28 meeting, Mr. Myrick asked the board to reconsider, citing an Ethics Commission opinion on his involvement and his resignation from the event’s executive board, among other things. Funding was voted down 5-3 (Mr. Myrick recused himself). On February 25 Chuck Baker appeared to ask the board to reconsider yet again. This time the vote went the other way, and it was funded 5-2. Mr. Myrick did not leave the room for the vote, and in fact attempted to raise his hand when the vote was called (but his vote was not counted). While Juneteenth arguably got more bites at the apple than Grillin’ on the River did, they were both at the very least considered, reconsidered and re-reconsidered. – Brian Jones] “That’s part of the reason I’m saying that,” Hicks said.
“You set a precedent by taking up Grillin’ on the River more than twice,” Buckhalter said.
“That’s why we should adopt a policy,” Hicks said. “But even then we can issue a waiver.”
“You’re discriminating against some festivals,” Buckhalter said. “That’s what it looks like to me.”
“I don’t know that anybody is voting for or against this as a matter of discrimination against anything,” Hicks said.
“I beg to differ,” Buckhalter said. “Everybody squirms when you say it’s discriminatory, but it’s discriminatory…wooooo….race. Race is one of the biggest issues Columbus has, but nobody wants to discuss it. It’s the elephant in the room. I’m confused why this particular festival should be taken off the agenda but you allow Grillin’ on the River to stay on there and come up more than three occasions. Is it the organization, or is it because of a certain person? Or what is it?”
“The reason I did not support it is because of several of the reasons discussed,” Castleberry said. “If you go back and look at some of the details of the proposals, they were very sub-par. The numbers did not add up, complete information has not been given. There is a bit of personal issue because I don’t like somebody to come in here and tell me how I think and why I think things. Don’t accuse me of things that are absolutely not true. I think it reflects on the leadership of that festival.
“In contrast I had a conversation with Kenneth McFarland and some other community members who will put on a Juneteenth event,” Castleberry added. “They are willing to put some money into it. I’d be glad to give them some money, it sounds like a good thing. I think this is a poorly managed event and they waste a lot of money. They don’t put anything into it themselves.”
“There is race and prejudice on the board,” Byrd said. “We do a lot of infighting. It’s too bad that we’re not big enough to overcome a racial issue or a personal vendetta. That has no place on this board. If you do that, you’re on the wrong doggone board. If you’d rather kill a whole festival that’s been done for years…we’ve always supported Juneteenth, the accountability and transparency has been great. Other members of this board have picked at Juneteenth because you don’t like Leroy Brooks. We must move forward. It’s for the community. We put a lot of money into the Pilgrimage and it’s primarily for the white folks, but Ms. Carpenter has a blank check but we can’t give $8,000 for Juneteenth.”
“I don’t have any personal vendetta against Mr. Brooks,” Lawrence said. “You can roll your eyes at me all day. Mr. Brook is a supervisor. He stood right here and reminded us that he appointed some of us to this board. I vote against him and against any of the city councilmen or supervisors because I think it’s improper for them to appoint us to this board and then come before us and ask us to sponsor their event and remind us they appoint us. That’s improper.”
[I think the issue is, and has been, the fact that Mr. Brooks was given $15,000 and turned it down. That should have ended the issue. It’s not about race. It’s not about Mr. Brooks. It’s about the fact that Juneteenth turned down the money and then returned with a deceptive proposal that did not match the actual event that was being planned. I don’t think that Juneteenth should have been reconsidered, just like I didn’t think Grillin’ on the River should have been reconsidered. – Brian Jones]
During her report Executive Director Nancy Carpenter stated that the Pilgrimage had been a great success. She also presented the board with a check, repaying the money that the CVB had given to the event.
“We had visitors from 46 states and 16 countries,” Carpenter said. “Even though we don’t have our final count on occupancy, we have seen an increase in revenue. It’s over 38 percent from last year. I am presenting a check to the CVB today for $38,000, which is the exact amount that was forwarded to the Cultural Heritage Foundation to start our Pilgrimage. I think it would be a great thing if everyone who took money would then return it.”
Carpenter estimated that the Pilgrimage had a $1 million economic impact.
“This is the best one we’ve had in over 10 years,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful that people see something in Columbus that they want to come back and visit.”
Mere minutes after being told there was no room for personal dislike on the CVB board, the board members devolved into a chaotic, venomous, 15-minute-long catfight over the minutes. When they came up for approval, Byrd questioned why she did not receive information on credit card usage, and why her request for that information last month was not reflected in the minutes.
“I don’t see the request I made,” Byrd said. “It should be in the minutes. I had requested that the credit card statement be included in my packet.” “Typically the only things reflected in the minutes are items where action was taken,” Hemphill explained.
“But then how will we track it?” Byrd asked. “I want a specific aspect to be included in my packet.” “I think the discussion was that that was something the board would have to decide,” Hemphill explained. [If I remember correctly, the items included in the board packet are set by a policy and so would need to be changed by board action. – Brian Jones] “The board has to make a policy before I can get credit card statements and receipts?” Byrd asked incredulously.
“In your board packet, yes,” Hemphill said. “The board sets policy as to what’s in your packet. It is your right to view all that information. Every board member is entitled to any information they need.”
“Exactly,” Byrd said. “I can’t make a decision because I don’t have it. That’s why I asked for it, so I can make an informed decision.”
“I advised the board that they have to decide—” Hemphill began.
“Why would you advise the board over something that I need?” Byrd snapped.
“I advised the board to adopt a policy to say what is going to be in each board packet,” Hemphill said.
“I think you will have to come by prior to the board meeting to get that information,” Wise said.
Buckhalter, who had been visibly fuming since the Juneteenth vote, jumped in.
“I don’t see a problem with it,” he said. “Ms. Byrd can ask for the information and have it sent to her. I don’t see why she has to come by here and get it. She requested it, send it to her. She can get the information without it being in the packet.”
“My understanding was that I could get a copy of the information and the receipts,” Byrd said.
“I think the issue we are trying to resolve is approving the minutes,” Hicks said, attempting to steer the conversation back to the matter at hand.
Buckhalter and Byrd both began talking at once, each insisting that Byrd needed the credit card receipts before she could vote on the minutes. When they paused for breath, Hicks attempted to respond.
“Any board member is entitled to anything at any time,” Hicks said. “If you’re going to direct that Ms. Byrd is entitled to some special materials that no other member gets, then we need to make a motion and vote it up or down.”
“I am talking about financial documents that are pertinent to the vote,” Byrd said. “I contacted the Ethics Commission and was told that I was entitled to any financial document.”
“But not as part of your packet,” Hemphill said.
“Not as part of my packet,” Byrd said, seeming to agree with Hemphill. “I just want the doggone thing. I just want the papers, okay, I want the receipts, I want it, period.”
“I think any board member can have any document at any time,” Hicks said.
“I just don’t understand why I don’t have it,” Byrd said.
“Why didn’t you come by and get it,” Hicks, visibly irritated, asked.
“I don’t have to come by—” Byrd said, but the rest of her statement was lost in the furor as many people spoke over one another.
Byrd made a motion that she be given the credit card information as part of her packet. Buckhalter seconded, and the motion failed 7-2, with only Buckhalter and Byrd voting yes.
“I just don’t think I should have to come by,” Byrd continued to insist. “I called you (Wise) and you said you were working on the checks.”
“I didn’t say that,” Wise said.
“You did,” Byrd insisted. “You said you were signing the checks.”
“I never said that, Whirllie,” Wise said. “I never said that.”
Hicks tried to move on, but Byrd shouted him down.
“You’re trying to impede…you’re trying to stop me from seeing these credit cards,” Byrd said.
“Nobody said that,” Hicks said. Hicks and Byrd then talked over one other, Hicks repeated “I never said that” while Byrd shouted “Why can’t I see it?” “Well, why didn’t you come by and get it?” Hicks, angry now, asked.
“If I come by they’re just going to tell me I can’t have it,” Byrd said.
“You are entitled to anything you want,” Hemphill said.
“I just don’t see a problem with giving it to her,” Buckhalter said. “I just don’t see where it would hurt anything to get it in her packet. What’s the problem?”
“I’ll tell you what my problem is with it,” Hicks said.
“Please do,” Buckhalter said.
“I don’t think any board member ought to be given special attention,” Hicks said. “I don’t care what you say about race. I think we should all be treated the same. Everybody ought to have equal access to any document any time on any matter. Black, white, Hispanic, any other color.”
“That doesn’t have anything to do with it,” Buckhalter said. “She needs that information to vote on the financials. She is entitled to it.”
The meeting again devolved into chaos, with multiple people talking at the same time.
“To clarify something for everyone, she is not asking for it to be in her board packet,” Buckhalter said, further confusing the matter. “She is asking for a copy of the original statement and receipts.”
Hicks, exasperated, called for a motion to approve the minutes. Casteberry made the motion and was seconded by Ellis. It passed 8-1, with Byrd voting no.
Byrd made a motion that the financial report, which is normally approved every month, be tabled because she felt she didn’t have the information to property vote. Her motion to table passed 5-4, with Castleberry, Ellis, Lawrence and Wise voting no.
With no new business before the board, the meeting adjourned shortly thereafter.