December 18, 2012 10:20:04 AM
Near the end of Monday's Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau board meeting Monday, District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks approached the podium to address the board.
Patting his right suit pocket, Brooks told the board that he would not speak from the text he prepared. Instead, he spoke off the cuff.
In retrospect, sticking to the prepared text probably would have been a better idea.
The message Brooks did deliver was a regrettable hodge-podge -- at times racially-charged, at times conciliatory and at times conspiratorial.
But ultimately, it was effective in the sense that it achieved his purpose.
Brooks addressed the board shortly after the board had voted on funding several events, including -- by a 5-4 vote -- Brooks' Juneteenth Festival for the maximum $15,000.
Brooks told the Board that he was refusing the money on the grounds that the conditions applied to the funding -- chief among them that no more than 25 percent of the funding can be used for entertainment -- were unacceptable.
Apparently, you can look a gift horse in the mouth.
Turning his attention to the four board members who voted against funding the Juneteenth Festival -- Harvey Myrick, Rissa Lawrence, Leon Ellis and Bart Wise -- Brooks compared them to those who descended on Oxford in 1962 to violently protest the efforts of James Meredith to integrate the University of Mississippi.
Brooks marveled that 50 years after that ugly episode, those hateful sentiments persist, presumably among those who voted against funding the Juneteenth celebration.
It is a serious charge, certainly. Yet the more serious charge, the greater the need to offer evidence to support the charge. Brooks offered nothing to support that charge, and fair-minded people would do well to reject that claim as the worst form of grand-standing.
If having the temerity to vote against something Brooks supports is tantamount to being a member of a lynch mob, it really is a sad state of affairs.
Ultimately, Brooks' incendiary charges had their intended effect. He was able to convince the board to reassemble its funding advisory committee for a meeting with festival organizers to discuss their issues with the stipulations that govern the money the CVB distributes to festivals.
Brooks, who made a point of telling the board that the money entrusted to the CVB is public money, would have preferred that the public be kept in the dark during that meeting though, suggesting that the committee meet with festival organizers "in a back room without the media present."
That, of course, would be a blatant violation of the state's open meetings laws.
It remains to be seen what the eventual outcome will be. At some point, Brooks will meet the CVB's committee and work out a compromise that will restore funding for the Juneteenth Festival.
It's an interesting dilemma the board faces: As a body entrusted with taxpayer funds, it has not only a right but an obligation to be accountable for how that money is spent. On the other hand, does the CVB want to put itself in a position to micro-manage the dozen or so festivals it funds? Should those conditions be uniform and, if so, how does it resolve the fact that the needs of festivals can vary? For some, a bigger portion of the funding will be needed for entertainment. For others, advertising might be a bigger cost factor.
It is not as though Brooks did not have a legitimate point. But his slash-and-burn methods are wearisome and offensive.
So it is likely that the committee will amend its rules to address these concerns.
But if the CVB really wants to set its house in order, it would make the one change that would truly serve the best interest of the public: Prohibit funding to any elected official.
The CVB board is appointed by the Columbus City Council and the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors.
Routinely, those board members are approached by the officials seeking taxpayer funds. Often, they owe their position on the board to these same officials. It smacks of political patronage.
Brooks is just one of those elected officials who solicit funds from the CVB. It is a list that includes Columbus Mayor Robert Smith (Mayor's Unity Picnic), District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith (Townsend Blues Festival), Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor (Townsend Blues Festival) and Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem (Seventh Avenue Heritage Festival).
That elected officials could solicit taxpayer money from a board they have appointed is an obvious conflict of interest and a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the state's ethics laws. It is not a legal violation (Mississippi's ethics laws are among the weakest in the nation), but it should offend the sensibilities and insult the intelligence of all fair-minded citizens.
That is not to say that events such as the Juneteenth Festival do not make worthwhile contributions to our community. But those festivals should be able to thrive under the guidance of leaders who do not hold public office. Getting elected officials out of the festival business would remove forever the suspicion that these festivals are little more than promotional events for officials who want to get reelected.
Brooks, Smith, Taylor and Karriem should either turn over the festivals to others or refrain from seeking taxpayer funding.
And if they are unwilling to do so, the CVB should amend its bylaws to exclude public officials from accessing taxpayer money to fund their events by reason of guarding against conflicts of interests.
Brooks is right on at least one point: It is the public's money.
At last, let's make sure it is used that way.