Leroy Brooks addresses the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau board during Monday night's meeting. Brooks declined funding for the Juneteenth Festival on the grounds that stipulations attached to the funding were unacceptable and asked for a meeting with the CVB’s festival grant committee to resolve the dispute. Photo by: Lee Adams/Dispatch Staff
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December 18, 2012 9:54:01 AM
COLUMBUS -- The organizer of one of Columbus' longest running festivals said "thanks, but no thanks" to $15,000 in festival grant funding Monday.
District 5 Supervisor and Juneteenth Festival organizer Leroy Brooks turned down $15,000 in festival grant money in front of a room packed with city and county elected officials during the regularly scheduled meeting of the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Trustees. Brooks initially turned down $14,000 for the 2012 Juneteenth Festival before changing his mind and taking the grant money.
The board voted to award the 2013 Juneteenth Festival $15,000 as a tourism event, based on a recommendation by its festival grants committee. In the 5-4 vote, board members Bart Wise, Harvey Myrick, Rissa Lawrence and Leon Ellis voted against the funding.
At the heart of Brooks' objection were new rules governing festival funding. The newly-implemented festival guidelines split the funding into two categories, tourism events -- which can receive up to $15,000 -- and quality of life events which can receive up to $8,000 in funding. Tourism events must draw people from out of town and last at least two days. Only 25 percent of the funds may be used for entertainment. Quality of life events may use the entire funding to hire entertainment.
During a 15-minute tirade, Brooks turned down the grant money, saying it wouldn't be helpful for his festival.
"To the five of you that voted to fund the festival, I will graciously say to you, on behalf of the Juneteenth Festival committee, we will not accept that grant. $15,000 is what it costs for the entertainment. I came to this board almost a year ago along with other festival organizers and said to this board that before you implement your guidelines, let us have our input. We were told at that meeting we could have the opportunity and this board did not follow through with that."
Brooks said he was not surprised that four members voted against his festival funding.
"I've been doing Juneteenth for 16 years and I've always filled out my reports," Brooks said. "To the four members of the board who voted against this, let me say I'm not surprised. I thought about when I was nine years old and growing up in the southern part of Lowndes County. What's important about being nine years old is that it was 1962 and James Meredith attempted to go to Ole Miss. People in this county and throughout the state of Mississippi went to Oxford -- they had lost their minds. Even here, there was a call for people to take their guns and go to Oxford and try and stop James Meredith from going to Ole Miss. I call those people obstructionists. So for those of you that think that fighting Juneteenth, you're doing something great, your time will end on the board and I won't do a Juneteenth and the truth of the matter is it really won't matter. You're not doing me an injustice. In a few days, I will have been a supervisor for 29 years. I've been locked up a couple of times and investigated by every agency and guess what -- I'm still smiling. To those of you on this board with the sole purpose of fighting Leroy Brooks, you are wasting your energy."
While the question of the ethics of elected officials appointing members to a board that in turn funds their events remains unclear, one local state official says he is tired of the "CVB mess." Tuesday morning, Rep. Gary Chism, R-Columbus, accused some festival organizers of using the CVB as a means for getting re-elected.
"This whole CVB mess has gotten way out of hand," Chism said. "There seems to be a connection between some city council members and some county board members who appoint board members and then get money. The CVB was started for tourism, and festivals are not tourism. When the CVB comes back up again in the legislature in 2018, the citizens of Lowndes County will get to vote on whether or not it continues this way. Gov. Bryant has taken an interest in what's going on in Lowndes County with the CVB and elected officials and he's indicated he's not going to support this inter-local agreement. It appears Brooks and others, including (Columbus mayor) Robert Smith, are using this CVB money for re-election purposes and it's time for a change. I think it is a mis-use of funds for any elected official to receive public money through the CVB. We are going to look at this closely in Jackson and I'll be discussing it with the Mississippi Ethics Commission. It is time for Brooks and the rest of these elected officials to stop playing with public funds."
After a back and forth exchange between Brooks and Myrick, where Myrick also accused Brooks of appointing people to the board in order to get festival money, board chairman Dewitt Hicks, who called Brooks "a friend," pleaded with the supervisor and his board to stop the bickering.
"We're going to do this in a civil manner." Hicks said. "Supervisor Brooks, you and I have been friends for a long time. I have had the honor of working with this city in two capacities, as city attorney and as city judge. The Department of Justice investigated us to see if we were running segregated court rooms and we passed with flying colors. We need to get back to that situation where we're not black and white, we are citizens of Columbus. We've had enough of this racial strife in this board and in this town and in this county. Let's get back on a civil basis as Americans. We can disagree without being disagreeable."
Hicks also encouraged the festival grant committee and its chairman, Mark Castleberry, to reconvene and meet with Brooks and other festival organizers to hear their complaints. The committee agreed to meet again but did not set a date for the meeting.
The board also approved $8,000 funding for Artesia Days, $15,000 for Market Street Festival, $9,000 for the newly- formed Memphis BBQ Contest, $6,500 for Crawford Cotton Boll and $8,000 for the Southside Townsend Blues Festival. The board will vote on the funding for Grilling on The River in January after the grants committee discusses organizer Myrick's involvement with the festival.
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