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Columbus CVB Discusses Ethics Policy, Carpenter’s Contract — Board Refuses to Pay Second Half of Grillin’ Grant

Staff Writer

[The Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau held both its monthly board meeting and its yearly retreat Tuesday at Burnt Oak Lodge in Crawford.  The meeting stretched from 8:30 a.m. until nearly 4 pm., and too much was covered to fit in one article.  I’m going to write first about the routine monthly business, and then next week will take up the budget discussions and board retreat portions of the meeting. – Brian Jones]


Bart Wise, left, and Bernard Buckhalter, right.

Bart Wise, left, and Bernard Buckhalter, right.

Carpenter contract
The first several hours of the meeting were dominated by discussion of a contract for Executive Director Nancy Carpenter.
Carpenter has been working under the auspices of the former director’s contract.  The board has, in the past, talked about drawing up a new contract, but until Tuesday had not actively discussed the issue.
After opening the meeting and dealing with routine business for about half an hour, the board went behind closed doors at 9 a.m. and was in executive session almost continually until 12:30.  When they emerged, attorney David Dunn – who was sitting in for Board Attorney Chris Hemphill, who had a prior commitment – announced that Carpenter’s contract had been “approved as amended.”  He added that he had not made the requested changes yet and that they were a “moving target.”
Tuesday afternoon Carpenter said that she had not yet seen the amendments.

Ethics policy
After breaking for lunch, the board reconvened and took up the proposed ethics policy.
Last month Whirllie Byrd objected to the policy, questioning the fact that Carpenter chose to adapt a similar policy used by a CVB in Pennsylvania.  Byrd also objected to Carpenter drafting policies that govern the board, arguing that the board is the policy-making body.  Carpenter stated that there were no policies in place to govern the board at all, and that she was trying to implement some.  The policy was placed on the table, but Byrd declared that she would not follow it.
Tuesday the board members were asked to adopt and sign the policy and Byrd renewed her attack, stating that she would not sign the policy unless the board attorney sat down with her and explained it line by line.
“I said last time that I would not sign,” Byrd said.  “I did not have any input on it, and I refuse to sign it.”
Chairman DeWitt Hicks asked Dunn if Byrd had to sign it.
“I have not researched that,” Dunn said.  “I had no idea that someone was going to refuse, and I can’t give you an opinion off the seat of my britches.”
“If you’re not comfortable signing that, I don’t think we should be comfortable serving on this board,” said Bart Wise.  “I have a hard time going forward with somebody who is not willing to sign an ethics contract.”
“On that note, you were in violation because we bought the building from you—” Byrd said.
“No, we didn’t,” Carpenter interrupted.
“We did,” Byrd said.  “He came on board in February, we bought the building in April.  He could have stayed off a year.  That’s a conflict of interest.  There is more to this, we need to look at it.”
“I talked to (Hemphill) about this,” Carpenter said.  “He said everyone should sign.”
“I think she has the right to refuse,” said Bernard Buckhalter.  “That’s like an employer not being able to force someone to take a lie detector test.  You can’t terminate someone for refusing.”
“We can’t terminate anyone,” Wise said.  “But we can make a recommendation to the appointing body and ask that they be removed from the board.”
“I don’t think we have that authority,” Buckhalter said.   “As I recall several board members wanted to try to have the mayor remove me.”
“Sure did,” Byrd said.
“It was very clearly pointed out that no one from this board was the appointing authority and they could not do that,” Buckhalter said.  [Questions arose last year over Mr. Buckhalter, who was working in Starkville at the time.  Some people questioned whether he should be on the board if he didn’t work in Columbus or Lowndes County. – Brian Jones] “I think it’s been well said in the bylaws that this body does not have the right to remove anybody,” Hicks said.  “But the media has the right to inform our constituents if we are not abiding by the bylaws, including confidentiality and executive sessions.  But we all know the bylaws, and what the consequences are if we break them.  You (Buckhalter) are on the bylaw committee.  We should know what the consequences are if we violate or refuse to follow a board policy.”
“This is the first time we have had a policy,” Buckhalter said.  “Nobody has researched it that I know of whether we have to sign.  I signed it.  I don’t have a problem with it.  But I do uphold the right of anyone who refuses to sign.  You can’t force someone to sign something.  I don’t think we have the authority to go to the city or county and ask that someone be removed.  I strongly oppose that.”
“I concur that we have no power to remove someone,” said Mark Castleberry.  “But I do have an issue about not having some basic ethics or ethical standards.  If we don’t have a standard to have business on, it takes away trust.  If you can’t trust people, what do you have?”
“Individual board members went to the city council and tried to get me removed,” Buckhalter said.  “Nobody asked me where I worked or what my position was.  They went behind my back.  They thought they were so holier-than-thou, and that’s how this board did it.  I disagree with anyone on this board trying to have anyone else removed for any reason.”
Byrd said that, if they board attorney would go over each item in the policy with her, she would sign it.
The board voted 5-3 to instruct the attorney to go over the policy with Byrd.  Castleberry, Leon Ellis and Rissa Lawrence voted no.

Grillin’ on the River

Accountant Tom Buckley, left, and Harvey Myrick, right.

Accountant Tom Buckley, left, and Harvey Myrick, right.

The board refused to give Grillin’ on the River the second half of its grant.
The CVB originally refused to fund Grillin’ on the River.  The board tabled the event’s request for funding in December of last year over concerns about the involvement of Harvey Myrick, who at that time was on the CVB board.  Myrick is the founder of Grillin’ on the River, and heavily involved in its organization and activities, including handling money.  Myrick asked the board to reconsider at their January 28 meeting, citing an Ethics Commission opinion that said there was no conflict if he was a volunteer with the event and did not handle money.  He said at that time that a non-profit would be retained to handle all the monies on the event’s behalf.  The board, on a 5-3 vote, decided not to fund it.  On February 25 Chuck Baker appeared and, again, asked the board to reconsider.  The board reversed itself on a 5-2 vote, awarding it $8,000.
It is the CVB’s practice to pay out half the grant amount up front, and to pay the remainder after approving a post-event clearance report.  It is the clearance report that apparently tipped the balance against Myrick.
At the beginning of the discussion Castleberry, who chairs the Grant Committee, recommended against paying the second half.
Castleberry then made the motion to refuse funding, and was seconded by Rissa Lawrence.
“How did you reach that conclusion?” Byrd asked.  “Was there a breach of contract or something?”
“We decided based on documentation where a board member who was not supposed to be affiliated with Grillin’ on the River signed checks,” Buckhalter said.  “They said they weren’t going to do that, and they did it all through the event.”
“But we agreed to fund it,” Byrd said.  “If the report is in order—”
“But the report isn’t in order,” Buckhalter said.
“Not in order because the person was on the board at the time?” Byrd asked.
“That is violation of our bylaws,” Buckhalter said.
“Was he in violation to begin with?” Byrd asked.  “Should the grant have been given in the first place?  By the fact that it’s already given—”
“I’m saying that he signed all the checks,” Buckhalter said.  “He was not supposed to sign the checks.  We were told that someone else would be in charge of that.  We were told he would only be a volunteer, and a volunteer shouldn’t have the authority to sign checks.  We determined that that was a violation and we concur with the executive director not to fund the second half.”
“Should we ask for the first amount of money back, since it’s an ethics issue?” Ellis asked.
“I don’t know that it’s an ethics violation, but it did violate your policy,” Dunn said.
“What policy did it violate?” Byrd asked.
“It’s in our guidelines,” Buckhalter said.  “He came before this board and we were told that Chuck Cook would be in charge of Grillin’ on the River.  We were told that (Myrick) would only be a volunteer.  But on the opening and closing, (Myrick) signed checks and authorized things, not (Cook).  That’s what I have a problem with.”
“I went through the clearance report page by page,” Lawrence said.  “The only place that Chuck Cook’s name appeared was his signature on the clearance report.  If I understand correctly, it came in the first time without a signature and they had to take it back.  (Myrick’s) name was on almost every piece of paper as the contact person, and was all over the web site.”
Myrick, who was in the audience, asked to speak but was denied.
The board voted 7-1 to not pay the second half of the grant.  Byrd cast the no vote.
After the vote Byrd made a motion to allow Myrick to speak, but it failed 4-4.  Castleberry, Ellis, Lawrence and Wise voted no.
[Market Street also submitted a clearance report.  It was approved unanimously with no discussion. – Brian Jones] 0

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