Neighborhood festival or campaign event?

December 22, 2012 8:35:10 PM

Jeff Clark - [email protected]


Welcome to the Friendly City, the historic haven nestled along the banks of the Tombigbee River where the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau has a deal for you when it comes to festival grants, especially if you happen to be a county supervisor or city councilman. 


It is a particularly cozy arrangement -- the supervisors and council appoint the CVB board of trustees --who in turn can be counted on to open up the taxpayer-funded cookie jar when supervisors or council members come calling. 


Elected officials who routinely solicit money for festivals from the CVB say there is nothing unusual about the arrangement. But those involved in CVBs in other parts of the state disagree. 


"No sir, I've never heard of that: That's news to me," said Gordon Gollot, a city councilman in Gautier. Gollot also serves as a member of the Mullet and Music Festival committee, Gautier's major annual festival, an event that has been going on for more than 20 years. Unlike elected officials in Columbus, Gollot said he has no dealing with that festival's finances. 


A couple of years ago, Gollot was asked to chair what is the Gulf Coast town's signature festival. 


"The president and the treasurer handle all of the money and I can't touch the money as a councilman," said Gollot, who plans to run for mayor in 2013. "I discussed it with the city attorney and he recommended I not accept the chairman position. I have no access to the money and I can't write checks. I just try and help get the streets closed -- stuff like that." 


In Lowndes County, things are different. Not only are elected city and county officials applying for grant money from the CVB, they are also doling out cash and writing the checks, sometimes to family members and even to themselves. 


Since 2010, festivals headed by District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks (Juneteenth), Ward 5 councilman Kabir Karriem (Seventh Avenue Heritage Festival) and District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith and Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor (Townsend Blues Festival) have collectively received $116,500 in grants from the CVB. 


This year's Seventh Avenue Heritage Festival offers a couple of prime examples of how accounting for the use of taxpayer money by the festivals is murky. The clearance report the festival provided the CVB included $375 in payments for "miscellaneous'' services provided by Kamal Karriem, the brother of festival organizer and councilman Kabir Karriem. A $600 payment was made to Carolyn Karriem, Kabir Karriem's wife, as a "worker."  


In the Townsend Blues Festival paperwork, Tayor submitted a $5,000 check made out to cash. Taylor said the money was used to pay the band, which would only accept a cash payment.  


The CVB says new guidelines are now in place that demand more detailed accounting of how festivals spend the taxpayer money they receive, but some CVB board members say those changes don't go far enough. They want to prohibit the practice of funding festivals altogether. 




Brown cries foul 


That elected officials would seek taxpayer money from people they appoint to the CVB board was never a part of the original plan when the state's current CVB legislation was passed, says Sen. Terry Brown (R.-Columbus). 


"This is definitely not the vision we had when I wrote the bill that created the CVB in 2008," said Brown, who is president pro tempore of the state senate. "I can honestly say we never thought elected officials that appoint board members would, in turn, be getting the same board to give them grant money. I don't know the legality of it, but it's at least a conflict of interest." 


Under Senate Bill 3069, authored by Brown, the guidelines for the interlocal agreement are specifically laid out. The bill defines the two-percent restaurant sales tax that is solely used to fund the CVB. The bill also contains a section stating how the CVB legislation can be brought back before the legislature. A resolution passed by the majority of the city council or the board of supervisors would bring the CVB back before the state's lawmakers. According to Brown, this may be the best way to correct this questionable practice. 


"They need to let us have (the CVB) again," Brown said. "We'll put it on a referendum and let the people vote on whether or not they want elected officials in the festival business. This will take care of that situation quickly, I promise you." 




Unethical, but legal? 


District 3 Supervisor Bill Brigham minces no words talking about his colleagues and festival money. 


"It's not right," Brigham said. "I don't think committee members should get money from the people they appoint. I don't have to run to the ethics commission to know this is wrong." 


But is it legal for elected officials to receive money from boards they appoint? Mississippi Ethics Commission Chairman Tom Hood says the law is vague. While it is clear that money cannot legally go into the pockets of those officials, it is unclear on the issue of political capital earned by a politician when he hosts festivals for his constituents. 


Illegal or not, Ward 3 Councilman Charlie Box feels the practice is unethical. 


"I think it's wrong and it's a huge disservice to the citizens of this community," says Box. "I think they are profiting from these festivals -- they may not be getting money, but I think they are using these things as a way to get re-elected and influence votes. I'm waiting on the ethics commission to come down hard on them.  


"There is no way people who appoint board members should ask those board members for money," Box added. "We'll end up losing this whole CVB. Just watch." 


CVB board member Rissa Lawrence, who also serves on the grant guidelines committee, said she is at her wits' end with the grant process. 


"I don't know what the answer is," Lawrence said. "The previous boards and administration allowed these organizers to have free rein. We split the grants into a quality of life category so they could use the money for entertainment, and it still wasn't good enough. 


"I would like to do away with festivals all together and promote tourism in Columbus. As I've said before, these things need to be self-sustainable at some point." 


When CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter was asked why elected officials can still receive grant funding, she replied, "That's a question for the ethics commission." 




How other CVBs operate  


Having politicians apply for grant money is one of many differences between the Columbus-Lowndes CVB and other such organizations in North Mississippi. 


The Tupelo Convention and Visitors Bureau is a singular entity without an interlocal agreement with Lee County. Director Neal McCoy said he has a $2.6 million working budget. The Tupelo CVB also has a grant program, but unlike Columbus, it awards far less grant money despite a much bigger budget. Its grant program also requires the applicant to provide matching funds. Grants in Tupelo may be used for marketing only. 


The organization awarded a total of $80,000 in grants in 2012, the largest single grant being $15,000. "Our biggest events are Elvis Presley Fest and Blues Suede Cruise -- they are the events that fill the most hotel rooms," said McCoy. 


When asked if elected officials in Tupelo apply for the grants, McCoy said no. 


"To my knowledge, this hasn't happened, at least while I've been here," he said. "I know that some elected officials volunteer and are on some of the committees we have funded, but I don't know of one them (who) has applied for a grant." 


In Starkville, the CVB is under the umbrella of the Greater Starkville Development Partnership (GSDP). With a budget of $350,000 chief operations officer Jennifer Gregory said the Starkville CVB issues about $60,000 a year in small grants to help with quality of life organizations such as the Oktibbeha County Museum and the Starkvillle Arts Council. 


Starkville's biggest festival, the Cotton District Festival, is sponsored by the Starkville Arts Council, which funds the festival with its budget and funds from sponsors. 


With a budget of almost $480,000 for FY2013, the Oxford Convention and Visitors Bureau, also funded with a 2-percent food and beverage tax, awards about $65,000 to about 20 organizations for festivals. 


Oxford CVB Director of Tourism and Marketing Mary-Kathryn Herrington said the organization is taking a more analytical look at the events they help fund. 


"As the CVB's goal is to generate hotel rooms in Oxford, we wanted to ... make sure we were funding projects that met that objective rather than just supporting events that we 'felt' were great. The goal is to have a funding mechanism that helps further tourism in Oxford." 


Herrington said the Oxford CVB provides a 50/50 match, and the money they provide can only be used for marketing and promotion. 


One of Oxford's most heavily attended events is the Double Decker Festival. Herrington said the festival receives some money from the CVB, the City of Oxford and private and corporate sponsors. 


"The Double Decker Festival has a budget of $200,000," she said. "It is an in-house CVB production. We contribute $7,500, the city gives the festival $35,000 and the rest is raised by our staff." 


Carpenter said she is well aware of the differences between area CVBs, and she hopes the new festival grant guidelines will create more accountability. 


"The national trend is for a CVB to spend 47 percent of its budget on promotions and marketing," Carpenter said. We're currently spending 14 percent of our budget on marketing and almost 10 percent of our budget on festivals. We just want accountability. We have some new guidelines that should cut down on things like festival organizers writing checks to themselves and listing anonymous cash pay-outs. Most organizers are willing to abide by the guidelines. The ones that don't will not receive any funding." 




Best practices 


Carpenter said one of the best events funded in part by the CVB is the Martin Luther King Dream 365 event, which happens annually in January. Conspicuously, perhaps, no elected officials are involved in organizing the event. 


"This is one of the best events we have in Columbus," she said. "(Dream 365 founder) Learnard Dickerson has done a great job with the event. The organizers bring their advertising by for approval before they use it and the guidelines state this must be done. We consult with them on their entertainment and they only spend what they can spend on entertainment. Their paperwork is always filled out properly. It's truly a model event for Columbus and Lowndes County." 


As the CVB board continues to absorb harsh criticism for what appears a lack of integrity in its festival funding procedures, at least one board member thinks a change is long overdue. 


"I want to see some new policies that will take the elected officials out of the equation," says Lawrence. "I've been against this from the beginning, it's why I always vote against funding a festival organized by an elected official. I don't want to be fined in the future for being a part of it. I oppose giving any money to any elected official."