Our opinion: What was the tourism board thinking?

May 20, 2011 12:36:00 PM



What were they thinking? 


Former Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau board member David Sanders billed -- and his firm was paid -- a little more than $17,000 for legal work Sanders performed on behalf of the board. (The Dispatch has obtained Sanders'' billing records to the board, and is examining them for a future story.) 


We''re not attorneys. But it doesn''t take one to see this was unethical, if not illegal. State law agrees. Put simply, a public board member can''t take money from a board he''s sitting on. 


We know Sanders is a capable lawyer. How could he, and the rest of the tourism board, allow this to happen? 


What were they thinking? 


James Tsismanakis, the former director of the tourism board, cleaned out his office when he left for his new gig in DeKalb County, Ga. -- and when we say he cleaned it out, he cleaned it out. 


Apparently he took a few items that the tourism board thought he shouldn''t have. Among these items were trinkets including a silver harmonica given to the board when the city was awarded a Mississippi Blues Trail marker. 


Tsismanakis should have known better. 


What were they thinking? 


The tourism board has been revamped. New members have questioned, and rightly so, the above matters. They''ve also delved into questions about the proper mission of the tourism board itself, which manages money from a 2 percent tax on food and beverage purchases. This fund is averaging about $1.2 million annually, and is growing. 


However, the new board is off to a rocky, and potentially costly, start. They discussed the above matters in an executive session that was, we believe improperly called. Under new state law, these board members can be personally fined for ignoring the state''s Open Meetings Act. 


The CVB''s story is this: The board called an executive session to discuss a "personnel matter" involving an unnamed employee, and "potential litigation" -- against Sanders and Tsismanakis. During the discussion about the unnamed employee, the discussion shifted to Tsismanakis, and the board voted to send him a letter asking for the harmonica and other items back. (He agreed to return them.) 


The board then discussed Sanders. Some board members wanted at least some of the $17,000 back. Other board members didn''t want to ask for the money to be returned. In the end, the board voted to send a letter off to Sanders asking for part of the money. (They later voted, in an open meeting, to rescind the letter; Sanders'' firm, which was already talking among itself about the bill, did the right thing and returned the entire $17,000 anyway.) 


Can we verify that these matters were on the executive session agenda? No, because no record exists of the board''s reasons for going into executive session. 


Open meetings experts we talked to say that simply discussing a payment to a contractor doesn''t rise to the level of entering an executive session. Never mind that Sanders should never have been a contractor. All this was embarrassing, but should have been discussed in the open from the start. 


We acknowledge that litigation could have arisen from either the Sanders or the Tsismanakis matters, but it was hardly imminent. Whyrllie Byrd, the board president, told us herself she didn''t recall talking about any legal issues during the session.  


What were they thinking? 


Are these all good people, with their hearts in the right place, trying to do the right thing? We''d say yes, though Sanders should have known better. 


Are their meetings haphazardly run, ignoring Robert''s Rules of Order and the state''s sunshine laws? Clearly so. 


Does this board need a refresher course -- from a capable attorney -- regarding how to run a public board meeting, and when to enter a closed session? Absolutely, and sooner rather than later.