Tourism talk turns heated at meeting
Tensions over the designation of a tourist promotion agency (TPA) erupted once again at Wednesday morning’s Warren County Commissioners meeting.
In September, the Warren County Commissioners approved a resolution naming the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry (WCCBI) as the TPA for 2014. The TPA receives the hotel bed tax revenue for the county – typically $115,000 to $150,000.
The change will not become official unless municipalities representing more than half of the population of the county also approve it. If the resolution does not receive that support by the first of the year, WCVB will retain the TPA designation.
Since the controversy arose, supporters of the two agencies have lobbied municipalities for their backing and verbal conflicts between WCVB supporters and WCCBI representatives or the commissioners have become common.
On Wednesday, Charles Johnson and Marty Hinton took advantage of the public comment portion of the meeting to press their case for the WCVB in a discussion that quickly escalated. The argument included references to revelations about information that has not been made public and a lack of WCVB fiscal oversight.
The comment session began with Johnson posing a series of questions more reminiscent of a criminal prosecution than a civic meeting.
Johnson cited hearing impairment as the root of his demands, and repeatedly cut off commissioners attempts to provide more than a single syllable explanation.
“Today I have a few simple questions to be answered very simple with a yes or no answer,” Johnson said. “I’m not here to debate any questions. Just a yes or no will be enough at this time. I do have a hearing impairment which I have my records from Dr. Morgan’s office right here.”
Johnson’s questions included;
“Are the Warren County Commissioners voted into office by registered, tax paying citizens of Warren County?”
– The commissioners replied yes.
“Is it true that the Warren County Commissioners sit on the board of directors and are voting members of the county chamber of commerce and industry?”
– The commissioners responded in the affirmative.
“Is it true that the board of directors of the Warren chamber of business and industry is closed to the public, yes or no?”
– Commissioner Stephen Vanco replied, “yes.”
“Does the Warren County Commissioners give $40,000 and now wants to give the bed tax money of $140,000 estimated to this organization?”
– The commissioners again responded yes.
“Do you have any audited financial statements of the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry that the general public can read them?”
– Commissioner John Eggleston responded, “yes.”
“In Jan. of 2013 you had met with the board members of the Warren County Visitors Bureau and told them that they are privy to the process if anything changed and you would notify them, is that correct?”
– “I don’t recall that statement, we met with them…,” Eggleston began before being cut off by Johnson who said, “Just yes or no, that’s all I’m looking for.”
“No, I don’t think that is what we said,” Vanco added.
“Chuck, this isn’t a trial,” Eggleston said. “You don’t get to insist on that!”
“I think the general public as a citizen needs to know,” Johnson said. “I said I didn’t want any debate; yes or no that’s all I need!”
“I will say this, and I do appreciate the time and effort you’ve put into this,” Commissioner John Bortz said. “I strongly resent the implication of some of those questions. Now, you might require a yes or no question. If you want to submit questions like that to the commissioners… that’s fine. If you have a hearing impairment, I can appreciate that, but I’m not going to have you use your hearing impairment as some methodology for castigating the Warren County Commissioners at a public meeting. If you want to sit down and talk to us down in our office, the door’s always open. But don’t you try to insinuate anything by the implications of these draconian questions and treat us like hostile witnesses on the witness stand.”
Bortz went on to point out the commissioners are making decisions he feels are more important, citing a discussion earlier in the meeting on human services funds.
“Last year, we had to cut $90,000 to balance the budget,” Bortz added. “Now, if I can take that $40,000 that you made reference to, to the chamber and apply it towards these people, it means, upwards of a half-a-million dollars to people that are desperately in need of it… I sat on that board, and since that time I have had the privilege and opportunity to serve the citizens of Warren County in a capacity that has forced me to take a look a little bit beyond my work in tourism.”
Johnson cut in saying, “No more questions. I don’t need a debate! This is not a debate! A resolution was made by the Warren County Commissioners to benefit the Warren County Chamber of Business and Industry, of which they are voting members. This is certainly a conflict and an unethical practice of a public official.”
“You’re gonna answer some questions from me now, yes or no,” Eggleston said.
“I’m not answering any questions!” Johnson said.
“That’s the problem, you want it to be a one-way street,” Eggleston responded. “That’s been the characterization of these debates, ‘Everything’s fine. We don’t want to defend ourselves. We’ll attack the commissioners. We’ll make a scene like this is the big boys pickin’ on the little guys.’ You don’t want to answer any of the questions about the money you owe or the fact that you’ve lost a lot of quality board members that actually left and wrote you letters about how disgusted they were with the way you did business… We’ve been working with you for ten years and you basically say, ‘We don’t have to listen to you.'”
“I was not in here for a debate I simply said that,” Johnson responded.
“You were here to put us on the spot,” Eggleston interjected.
“You put a lot of time into putting those questions together, Chuck,” Bortz added. “I just wish you would have done it in a more discrete form so we can have a conversation. You want to start putting things out at the street level, then game on, I’ll do it. Because I’ll tell you right now, there’s a whole lot of information that I do know, that these commissioners, we have refrained from putting out in the press.”
Hinton asked if the commissioners agenda is posted online prior to meetings.
After consulting with Chief Clerk Pam Matve, the commissioners told him it was not.
Hinton then asked, “It’s been stated… that you gentlemen have received the chamber audited financials. When and how could that be reviewed?”
“Go over and ask them for one, Marty,” Eggleston responded. “They’ll give it to you.
“When they presented the proposal for merger,” Vanco said. “They provided their audits. You didn’t because you didn’t have one.”
“Because there’s state tax dollars involved,” Hinton finished. “Because there’s county tax dollars involved there.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Bortz responded. “When there are tax dollars involved, it’s very important that organizations maintain a clear successive year-in and year-out audited financial statement.”
“The thing is, sometimes it’s required and sometimes it isn’t,” Hinton said.
“Here’s the thing I’ll say, we asked the same question from you folks,” Bortz said. “You know what we got? A big fat nothin’ because there were no audited statements for a period of, what gentlemen, five years?… The thing is, you’re dealing with tax dollars Marty! You’re a tax-exempt organization acting in a para-governmental manner… Your statements were never audited… You had no audited statements verifying the information that you were giving to the commissioners, that we are accountable for… Your books weren’t clean Marty… I can tell you this decision has been on-going and while just one part, your financial operations over there, has been held in question. There’s a whole other question as far as, who should be working with whom? Look, we have a better way in which we can do tourism in this county, but if there’s going to be an insulated group of people who insist on saying, ‘You know what, unless you push us up against the wall, we’re not going to do our books correctly. We’re not going to have things audited. And you know what, we really don’t feel like working with anybody that we really don’t want to work with. Oh, and by the way, county, I want you to give us a $150,000 designation as the tourist promotion agency and we just want to work amongst ourselves,’ I’m sorry.”
Bortz pointed out the county has two sets of independent auditors and internal, elected auditors look at county finances.
“The books are clean, Marty,” Bortz added. “We asked with regards to the debt position of the Visitors Bureau… I don’t know today if we ever got a straight answer on it. There is some question as to how some money has been allocated, as to how some money has been spent. That is a problem. That is a big problem.”
Bortz went on to outline some of the commissioners reasoning for the change in TPA.
“When it comes time to putting accountability to organizations that are gonna be handling our money… we are very diligent about that,” Bortz said. “And when we see $150,000 a year… going through your hands, and for you not to take responsibility of auditing your organization responsibly so you can turn around and say to the citizens of Warren County, ‘We’re running this thing responsibly,’ shame on you!… There will be some repercussions as a result of this. I’m going to have to rethink about some of the things which I have not been disclosing forthrightly and directly with the press as a result of this.”
WCCBI CEO Jim Decker responded to a Times Observer request for the organization’s latest audit saying that, while the 2012 audit had not been returned, he would provide a copy as soon as WCCBI had one.
Bortz could not be reached Wednesday in regards to the discussion.