June 18, 2013 10:48:20 AM
The Columbus Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Directors approved the adoption of an ethics policy in a 7-1 vote during its meeting Monday.
The only member in dissent was Whirrlie Byrd, who took issue with executive director Nancy Carpenter spearheading the policy for members to follow, saying the members should set those guidelines themselves.
The policy as first presented during the May meeting was tabled. Byrd was absent from that meeting. There were no changes in the policy's language between the draft presented in May and the one before members Monday.
The code disallows any elected official, CVB board member, CVB employee or immediate family member to request or receive any public funds from the CVB. Those parties would also not be allowed any financial interest in a CVB-funded event nor can they be in any way associated with documents required to request funding. The policy also requires directors to disclose any self-interest in a transaction or event under board consideration for transparency reasons.
Byrd asked Carpenter if she drafted the policy herself and board attorney Chris Hemphill if he reviewed the draft in advance of the meeting. Hemphill said he reviewed the policy. Byrd then said if the board was to have such a code, Carpenter should have her own.
"My first response would be the (executive) director should have a code of conduct or conflict of interest policy," Byrd said. "I can't see the director drafting a policy for the board."
Board president Dewitt Hicks reiterated Carpenter was in charge of the CVB's day-to-day operations.
"All this board does is adopt policies. This is a policy," Hicks said. "It's the responsibility of this board to adopt this policy, modify it or reject it."
"I don't see anything that says Nancy has to draft policy for the board," Byrd replied. "Explain that to me."
Carpenter then reminded Byrd that no such policy had previously existed and there was a need to have one in place.
Byrd noted there was initially a portion of the code that disallowed members from speaking with media if they were in dissent with board decisions and policies. Carpenter noted that part had been stricken and would not be a part of the policy.
"What if you don't abide by one of these factions?" Byrd asked. "What happens if I decide to talk to the media? What (are) you going to do to me?"
"We've never done anything to you," Carpenter replied. "We are not defeating your right to speak."
Byrd then noted that the policy had been drafted identically from a similar bureau's code in Lancaster County, Penn. The Dispatch previously reported Carpenter saying she authored the draft.
"It's word for word," Byrd said. "It's not even our own draft."
"I told you that, and had you been at the last meeting," Carpenter said before Byrd interrupted, saying Carpenter never mentioned the fact. Carpenter then said it was in the board's minutes and she asked for and received permission to mimic the draft and change information to apply to Columbus and Lowndes County.
Byrd then said she would vote against the code because she felt Carpenter didn't have the authority to set policy for members.
Festivals receive funding
The board also opted to fund five festivals for the second half of its fiscal year.
Director Mark Castleberry and grant committee members said representatives from the Roast'N'Boast festival requested $14,000 in funding as a tourism event. The recommendation was to fund the festival $8,000. All members except Leon Ellis voted in favor of funding the festival in that amount.
Dinner Theatre organizers asked for $8,000 as a quality of life event, and Castleberry's recommendation was for that amount. The board voted 6-2 in favor of that recommendation. Ellis and Bart Wise voted against the resolution.
Organizers of the Tennessee Williams Tribute asked for $15,000 -- the maximum amount awarded for a tourism event. Castleberry said the recommendation was for $8,000. Before voting against the recommendation, Hicks said he would be doing so because he felt the event deserved the full amount. The board voted 5-3 to fund the festival $8,000. Hicks, Bernard Buckhalter and Nadia Dale were in dissent.
Director Rissa Lawrence recused herself from discussion of funding Caledonia Days due to her husband, Bill, recently being elected mayor of that town. Despite Lawrence doing so, Byrd and Buckhalter still had concerns about conflicts of interest concerning the Lawrence family in relation to the ethics policy, which had not yet come up on the agenda at the time.
"The checks go to the Town of Caledonia. Even though Mrs. Lawrence recused herself it still seems there would be a conflict of interest of some sort if her husband is one receiving the check," Byrd said. "If the check is going to the Town of Caledonia and she's a board member, it looks like there's a red flag somewhere."
Hemphill said there was no issue.
"This is not going to (Bill Lawrence's) personal financial gain. This is strictly to a governmental entity or organization to support an event," Hemphill said. "Mrs. Lawrence herself, if she were on (the Caledonia Days) board, it might be an iffy issue ... but in those situations, just to avoid an appearance of impropriety, ethics and attorney general says someone should recuse themself from any discussion and voting on the matter."
Byrd mentioned the recent ousting of former member Harvey Myrick, who was removed from the board last week after it was decided by his appointers, Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders and Columbus Mayor Robert Smith, that his affiliation with CVB-funded event Grilling on the River was a conflict of interest. Buckhalter then made reference to the policy they would soon be voting on.
"We've got on the agenda to vote on policy for board members some of the very questions that have come up in this instance. Whether he's the mayor or an alderman he benefits because he's the mayor of the Town of Caledonia," Buckhalter said. "We've got a policy we're talking about adopting. We need to look at the policy and see if there's a conflict there. The policy says no one can personally benefit or otherwise benefit or their family members."
The board ultimately voted 4-3 in favor of funding the festival, with Byrd, Buckhalter and Dale being the opposing votes.
Members also voted to fund Dream 365 as a tourism event at the requested amount of $15,000. Ellis and Lawrence voted in dissent.
Memphis BBQ Invitational issues
During a project clearance report, Carpenter recommended the Memphis BBQ Invitational only receive $1,347.22 of the $4,500 it was eligible for. The festival had originally been approved for $9,000 as a tourism event. Grants are dispersed in two payments -- one before and one after the festival occurs. The event's impact on tourism and the satisfaction of criteria determine how much the festival receives after it has taken place.
Carpenter said a failure to fully meet criteria was the reason for her recommending the reduced amount. She noted it was more than $1,100 short in portions to be used for advertising and promotion. She said organizers also ran over budget on the amount that could be used for entertainment.
Festival organizer Mike Law said advertising is not the only factor to the festival's success.
"We brought over 300 people in town and they spent money and it was my understanding that that's what these events are for -- to bring people into Columbus (who will) spend their money," Law said. "It's just kind of disheartening to not get what you thought you would get, but we appreciate what we did get."
Law also said there was a lack of clarity in the advertising guidelines in relation to where ad dollars had to be spent.
"When I'm thinking outside I'm thinking advertise outside of 100 miles in Tupelo, in Tuscaloosa or in Meridian," he said. "It's a little muddy there. We spent the money and had the contest here and now we're being penalized and not getting the money back that we spent."
Castleberry then noted that rules have to be followed for the time being but could be re-evaluated at the board's upcoming retreat next month for effectiveness.
"The reason you want people from over 100 miles away is because they'll spend the night. People from Tuscaloosa and Tupelo don't spend the night here," he said. "If we have rules they need to be followed. If they're not good rules, they need to be modified, but that's not the purpose of this discussion. They will be a point of discussion in the retreat. If we're going to allow a pass, why have rules? Why have guidelines?
"How many people do you think are coming from 100 miles away?" Law asked.
"We hope a lot," Carpenter said.
Rissa Lawrence said if Law did not expect a large turnout from outside the 100-mile radius, he should have applied for a quality of life event.
The board favored Carpenter's recommendation in a 5-3 vote, with Buckhalter, Byrd and Dale voting in dissent.
Law subsequently was asked by Hicks to maintain decorum after he continued to speak against the decision from the CVB building's lobby.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.
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