July 24, 2013 10:55:10 AM
Nathan Gregory - [email protected]
The Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Directors voted 7-1 Tuesday to deny funding the second half of a quality-of-life grant to the Grilling on the River. The decision was made after the grant committee's review of the event's project clearance report raised ethical concerns about former CVB board member Harvey Myrick's involvement with the event.
Grant committee chair Mark Castleberry said the committee's suggestion not to award that portion, which would have provided up to $4,000 for the festival, was based on a thorough review of the clearance report as well as a recommendation from CVB Executive Director Nancy Carpenter. Committee member Bernard Buckhalter made the motion to not fund the grant's second half. Fellow committee member Rissa Lawrence seconded.
Columbus Mayor Robert Smith and Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders, who jointly appointed Myrick in 2011, removed him from the board last month after raising questions about his signature being on the debit card for the event's checking account and his listing as a contact person for the event.
The Dispatch reported that at his time of appointment, Myrick asked for an opinion from the Mississippi Ethics Commission on his affiliation with the event. That office stated there was not a conflict. In March 2012, the MEC response found that the CVB could fund an event staged by a non-profit if a member has no financial interest in the event.
A registered agent/office statement of change form sent to the Mississippi Secretary of State's office and filed Feb. 26 lists a change from Myrick to Chuck Cook as the festival's president. The CVB board voted Feb. 25 to provide the festival with the first installment of grant funding in the amount of $4,000.
Buckhalter said Myrick signed checks related to the event despite his volunteer status.
"Due to the fact that the person was signing all the checks that was not supposed to sign checks, we were told that someone else would be in charge of the event and (Myrick) had distanced himself from it," Buckhalter said. "A volunteer (doesn't) sign checks ... That was happening. The grant committee met and looked at the pre-clearance report and determined that was a total violation. We concurred with the executive director not to fund the second half."
Board member Leon Ellis asked if the CVB should ask to be reimbursed for the money it had already provided to the event. Byrd asked if the board had a policy in place at the time of approving the grant concerning funding of a festival in which a CVB member is involved. Buckhalter went on to say that it was understood Cook would be in charge of the event. There was little more discussion on Ellis' and Byrd's questions, as the initial motion was already on the table.
"We were told that Harvey would only be a volunteer. From the opening to the closing, according to the clearance report, Harvey was the one handling everything -- not Chuck," Buckhalter said. "From writing, signing checks and authorizing everything, that's what I had a problem with as a grant committee person."
"I went through the clearance report page by page," Lawrence added. "The only place that Chuck Cook's name appeared was his signature on the clearance report. If I understand correctly, it was turned in the first time without a signature and they had to take it back. Harvey's name was on almost every invoice as the contact person or purchaser."
Myrick, who was present for the meeting, was not on the regular agenda to speak on the matter. He asked CVB board chair Dewitt Hicks for an opportunity to do so. Board member Nadia Dale reminded directors that a motion was still on the table and had to be voted on before the board could vote on whether or not to allow Myrick to speak.
Following more discussion from Byrd, Castleberry motioned to call the question, which passed 7-1 with Byrd in dissent, followed by the vote to not fund Grilling on the River.
Myrick again asked Hicks for a chance to speak. Hicks reminded Myrick that, as a former board member, he was familiar with standard procedure and knew he must receive board permission through a majority vote. Byrd made a motion to let Myrick address the board. She, Dale, Buckhalter and Hicks voted in favor, with board member Bart Wise, Castleberry, Russell and Lawrence opposed. Because the CVB board does not have a procedure to break a tied vote, the motion failed in a 4-4 tie.
After the meeting, Myrick said he remembered signing two checks, but the MEC report granted him the right to do so as long as he did not gain anything financially from the event.
"I feel like a grant application is a contract. I have an obligation the same as the grantor has, and Grilling on the River's use of that money follows every bit of guidelines that were set forth. I personally know that because I sit on the (GOTR) grant committee and know them much more so than some other organizer would," Myrick said. "I felt I should have a right to rebut any of what I call lame reasons for not awarding the second half of...a legal contract. It was irrational to break a contract of agreement and more so with a lame excuse of my personal involvement in the event. The ethics commission (opinion) that was issued to me well over a year ago stated that I can be a volunteer. I can be anything. I can be a organizer. I could be a check signer as long as I am not getting paid for my services. If this board is irrational enough to overlook that ethics commission opinion, all I can see is personal issues involved."
The CVB board also allotted the maximum second-half grant amount to Market Street Festival as a tourism event -- a total of $7,500.
Both votes on project clearance reports passed during the regular meeting portion of the board's annual retreat at Burnt Oak Lodge in Crawford.
Nathan Gregory covers city and county government for The Dispatch.