February 28, 2012 10:33:00 AM
After numerous debates and arguments, the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau voted Monday night to enforce a cap on unapproved credit card spending. The subject has been a hotly-contested topic in recent months, especially between board member Whirllie Byrd and Executive Director Nancy Carpenter.
But it was board member Bernard Buckhalter who brought the issue to a head, suggesting the spending limit on unauthorized purchases.
Buckhalter said his request was due to discrepancies in the CVB's 2011 audit, which was conducted by local accounting firm Watkins, Ward and Stafford.
Board Treasurer Bart Wise said he felt the subject has been overly scrutinized.
"We've put this under a microscope to where we almost can't operate as an organization," Wise said. "You can see each credit card expenditure every month and see exactly how much has been spent. (Nancy) has even implemented a system so that purchases under $50 cannot be charged on the credit card and have to come out of petty cash. I don't know what else to do but cancel the thing."
Among the discrepancies Buckhalter alleged in the audit was a one-month credit card bill of $20,000 in 2010.
"I just think we need to have something in place to prevent this from happening again," Buckhalter said. "We need to give the director some direction by putting a limit on it."
Carpenter welcomed Buckhalter's suggestion.
"You can do whatever you want," she said. "I will be glad to cut the credit card up and never use it again. I don't know what else to do. We spend way too much time talking about this. We implemented some changes that will hold us accountable. Although I said we should do away with it, it is hard to run a business without a credit card. It really doesn't matter to me (Bernard) if we have one or not."
Although the audit reflected a $20,000 charge in March 2010, Wise said it happened under the previous administration and was a clerical error, not a misappropriation of funds.
Columbus developer and board member Mark Castleberry questioned whether Buckhalter's desire to cap the card stemmed from an ulterior motive.
"Are we talking about the credit card, or are you trying to cut down (Carpenter's) spending?" Castleberry asked.
After 45 minutes of arguing over the issue, board member Dewitt Hicks made a motion to limit credit card spending to $1,000 without board approval and no online purchases.
The motion was seconded by Buckhalter. The motion passed with Castleberry, Wise and Rissa Lawrence voting against the measure. Carpenter said she would comply with the board's wishes.
'Whose attorney are we hiring ...?'
The hiring of a board attorney -- to be used on an as-needed basis -- was also a controversial issue.
Carpenter presented three bids for the board's consideration, with Buckhalter suggesting they choose the lowest bidder.
Carpenter, backed by Castleberry, told Buckhalter that the lowest bid was not relevant when choosing professional services.
"I think going with the lowest bid is the incorrect way to do this," Castleberry said.
According to Carpenter, the three submitted bids were from attorneys Chris Latimer, Jeff Smith and Colom Law Firm.
Carpenter said Smith was the lowest bidder.
Board Chairman George Swales asked Carpenter who she recommended for the position.
"I recommend we hire Chris Latimer because I feel he will respond in a timely matter and he would be very knowledgeable of the subject," Carpenter said.
The recommendation was met with swift opposition from Buckhalter.
"Whose attorney are we hiring -- the board's or the director's?" Buckhalter asked. "The board needs to make this decision."
His motion to hire the lowest bidder was voted down.
Byrd then suggested the board hire Colom Law Firm, but Lawrence raised immediate concerns.
"I'm not trying to hurt anyone's feelings, but there is someone sitting on this board who has a close, personal relationship with Scott Colom, and this person should recuse themselves from voting," Lawrence said.
Board member Nadia Dale responded to Lawrence's accusations, stating that she was friends with Colom and agreeing to recuse herself from the vote.
The motion to hire Colom was once again voted down, with Swales casting the deciding vote.
After the board voted to hire Latimer, who is also general council for the city of Starkville, Dale said she felt the board was not being diverse with its hiring.
"(Carpenter) says a lot about this board being diverse and the need for diversity in Columbus," Dale said. "We had a chance to do something about that tonight, and the board voted against it."
Buckhalter said he felt the hiring of Latimer was "racist."
Latimer is a partner at Mitchell, McNutt and Sams, a local law firm that had to give $17,320.50 back to the CVB in May 2011. David Sanders, an attorney with the firm, was a CVB board member at the time and was using his firm to handle board business. The issue was a source of contention for Byrd and Buckhalter.
"I don't see how we can hire (Latimer) -- this is clearly a conflict of interest," Buckhalter said. "This firm has already had to pay money back to the board."
Byrd concurred with Buckhalter and asked it to be placed in the minutes that she was "against hiring Chris Latimer because of his association with Mitchell McNutt and Sams."
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