December 4, 2010 10:15:00 PM
New drama erupted around the Columbus Convention and Visitors Bureau this past week, with Lowndes County Board of Supervisors President Harry Sanders proposing that the county vacate its four board appointments to the board, and make new ones.
Critics of Sanders, first and foremost District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks, accused him of trying to micromanage the CVB, and attempting to "stack the deck" with new board members more friendly to the Columbus-Lowndes Development Link, which took a funding cut from the CVB in its latest budget.
Sanders'' argument is that he''s only trying to follow the city ordinance that created the CVB. And he''s right -- the ordinance isn''t being followed. That''s mainly because the ordinance, dating to 1986, is outdated, and needs to be rewritten.
Further complicating matters is the lack, so far, of anyone being able to find an interlocal agreement between the city and county, giving full blessing to the ordinance.
The ordinance calls for nine members on the CVB board, while the board has operated for years with only eight.
The ninth member is supposed to be the head of the Columbus-Lowndes Chamber of Commerce, which doesn''t exist anymore. (The Chamber was folded in with the Columbus-Lowndes Economic Development Association in 2003 to create the Link; Link CEO Joe Higgins rightly has said that it would be a conflict for him to be on the board.)
An odd number of members should be an essential for any public board, to avoid tie votes.
The CVB, which manages more than $1.2 million annually in 2 percent restaurant tax revenue, also isn''t getting the scrutiny from the city and the county that it should. According to the ordinance, the city and county are required to approve the CVB''s budget, and have the authority to modify it. The City and county also are charged with the hiring and firing of CVB employees. Financial oversight, and hiring and firing, are largely handled by the CVB itself, which has its own executive director, James Tsismanakis.
Sanders, whose renewed interest in CVB board appointments oddly coincides with the financial shortfall faced by the Link, has more than the right to question the CVB''s expenditures -- he has the duty to sign off on them, according to city ordinance.
Sanders has lashed out at the CVB''s grants for local projects. Among those 2010 grants are $13,000 to the Juneteenth Festival, which Brooks organizes, and $12,000 for the Seventh Avenue Heritage Festival, organized by Ward 5 Councilman Kabir Karriem, another critic of Sanders.
The Southside-Townsend Park Blues Festival, organized by Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor and District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith, received an $8,000 grant in 2010. This is another festival Sanders deems unworthy for CVB money.
Of course, the issue of race raises its ugly head. Sanders is white, while all these festivals, and the politicians who organize them, are black and mostly attended by blacks. That the argument is cast in racial terms is unfortunate. Yet, there''s something unseemly about these politicians, all of whom are supposed to have financial oversight of the CVB, withdrawing thousands of dollars in tax money for their neighborhood festivals. A new ordinance should address these conflicts.
Any change in the ordinance should settle, once and for all, the allotment of tourism money given to the Link each year. A "gentlemen''s agreement," which no one can find on paper, has the Link receiving 15 percent of tax proceeds. The CVB, facing a multitude of projects including the Old Highway 82 bridge, a new headquarters building and Tennessee Williams Home renovation, voted to give the Link 12.3 percent for its new budget year. The CVB clearly has this leeway now, but the matter should be addressed if the ordinance is rewritten.
The CVB, as we''ve said many times before, should remain independent. Once appointed, board members should vote to allocate funds free of political pressure.
To ensure this independence, city leaders need to rewrite the ordinance governing the board. Sanders is right to ask for change. That change should come not only in the form of new board members, but a new, clearer, and up-to-date law, that addresses conflicts of interest and provides firm financial oversight, shared by the city and county.