Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau

Articles written exclusively by one member of our staff are notated accordingly. Articles in which more than one person contributed are marked as The Real Story Staff Report, while ones taken from press releases provided to us are referred to as Special to the Real Story.
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Editor’s Note: The following is a letter, addressed to the members of the Board of Directors of the Columbus-Lowndes Convention & Visitors Bureau, which was provided to The Real Story.

With respect to my fellow board members & those supporting my appointment to the CCVB Board:

I came to this board hoping to seize an opportunity to learn and grow from working closely with an experienced and diverse group of constituents, toward the common goal of promoting tourism for Columbus/Lowndes County. However, after this first year of service, I am no longer clear that this is the common goal of our board. From where I sit, our obligation to tourism has been stifled by personal agendas, manipulation, rhetoric and most unfortunately, a lack of racial awareness.

Having a wealth of experiences working and living among various ethnic groups (and still benefiting from those relationships), I believe that all endeavors turn out best when people have a basic level of trust, respect and understanding.

In a recent editorial, our board was criticized for accusations of racism in a decision to hire general counsel. There are fewer claims that will more quickly destroy progress than being suspected of racism. However, I believe this editorial missed an important point. To me, the decision was disappointing because it reflects a systemic and historical pattern of discrimination. An African American attorney, to the best of my knowledge, has never been selected to represent a public board in Lowndes County. Most often, the decision to pass on black applicants is supposedly based on their lack of experience. But, unless a person is initially given a chance, and if one has been historically denied, then the cycle of denied opportunity continues.

As public servants, we have to concern ourselves with equity in such a pattern; not only in the sense of acting in fairness, but also in utilizing power to take responsible risks, in order to balance an uneven playing field. Ignoring the pattern only fuels the type of racial tension and distrust that will leave us doing more to sell papers, embarrassing our city than to promote tourism.  Therefore, my concerns with the selection of Board Attorney had more to do with the historical pattern of denied opportunities, than whether the CCVB chose Chris Latimer or the Colom Law Firm.

Nevertheless, with this decision behind us, the question I believe we should be asking ourselves is: “How are we making decisions and what decisions are we presently making to ensure a positive impact on the future of Columbus through the CCVB?” One decision to be proud of is the adoption of the accrual accounting system, which will tremendously decrease the likelihood that the festival community will ever have to face another unpredictable funding year, again. The community can no longer afford for us to continue in the power struggle between the LINK & the festival community. Otherwise, the City and County officials can add a line item to their own budgets to support economic development & grant funding for community projects with the tax revenues the CCVB receives.

One city official, grippingly, posed the question “If the CVB did not fund events, what would they be doing to promote tourism?” This is an important question, though, because it brings our conversations outside of its current box. Why couldn’t we find ways to creatively support events that are important to the community and fund more sustainable “quality-of-life” projects? We need projects that open possibilities for tourism, 365 days a year.  With two thriving institutions of higher learning; factories producing steel, transfer trucks & helicopters; and an Air Force base ALL within our reach, I think we’re overlooking opportunities to creatively put these dollars to good use. Even if this means first investing in the community on a smaller scale – for example, with the R.E. Hunt Cultural Center & Museum and our Columbus Arts Council. These are two spaces with great potential to draw tourists, but which are in need of more funding.

At this point, I am not certain that the board, with all of its present challenges, will rise above the tension and seek mutual understanding, to improve what we do as an organization. We may have to explore and purge the sources of our distrust before really being able to move forward. However, I appeal to you that we all set our energy, hearts and mind on doing just that- moving forward. Not just for ourselves, but for the entire city.

Sincerely,

Nadia Dale

Originally Posted in March 14, 2012 Print Edition

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The CCVB:  What to do About the Madness

The CCVB Board could easily be dismissed as a joke, but, unfortunately, the joke is on us, the tax payers.  Time and time again, their meetings break down into a tragic folly, trapped somewhere between Shakespeare and The Three Stooges.  Anyone viewing the meeting for the first time, could easily mistake it as a bad Saturday Night Live skit about local bumpkins trying to act like business professionals.

But, this is not a skit.  It is reality.  As bad as The Real Story blog and paper have made it sound, the truth is, we have been kind.  To put it bluntly, even though the nine members of the Board are volunteering, they are grossly overpaid.  It is never “ok” to look and act like juveniles, behaving badly, just because you are a volunteer.  As a matter of fact, it would probably be best for the community, if many of the board members volunteered somewhere else.

It is time for the City Council and the Board of Supervisors to grab “the bull by the horns” and address this critical situation.  Unfortunately, they have thier hands tied because many of them are dependent on this same organization that they appoint, to fund their festivals and bonehead mistakes.

How does Mayor Smith go and ask anyone on the Board to correct their mistakes, when this same organization pays for his “Catfish for Unity” party and pays a third of the expense for one of the craziest, shortsighted mistakes in the history of C-town.? Yep, campers, the ever popular “Bridge to Nowhere” project.  Number of tourists likely to visit the project? Zero.

Not everyone on the Board is guilty of high shenanigans, but the situation has deteriorated to the point that it can only be judged as a single entity. And, as a board, they have become a complete failure.  Make no mistake; they are dangerous to themselves and to the community.

They sit on an approximately $1.5M budget, and act as if they could not spell “budget” with a dictionary.  Here is a hint to the board members and Ms. Carpenter about when the CCVB needs a lawyer:  every time one of the participants in this fiasco begins to speak.  That would be a good start.

Then, the Board President needs to buy each member of the Board a copy of “Robert’s Rules of Order” and read it, and that includes George.  And, the next time someone shows up late and destroys the continuity of the meeting, someone would have the “walking sense” to stop it.

During any given CCVB Board meeting, you can hear accusations of misappropriation of funds, credit card fraud, lies and cover ups.  Maybe, Whirllie Byrd is right.  It is time for an independent organization, with no Lowndes County connections, to review the books.

And, if anyone is guilty of any of the accusations that have been made, punish the guilty parties.  That’s right, ole gang of mine; you don’t have to be an often-arrested dude at the “Lavender Coliseum Throw Down,” to be held responsible. Even, “nice folks” have laws and rules.  Now, all together class, can you say “ethics violations?” And, if no one is guilty of all these rumored acts of high treason, the clamoring can be put to rest.

This, however, is not going to happen until the tax payers get off their duffs and demand that the Board be held accountable.  Sorry, don’t look for any help from City Hall.  We already know that the Mayor cast the deciding vote to kill a motion by Charlie Box, asking for mandatory training for City board appointees.  He, obviously, believes there is no problem.  Plus, he has a “mistake” to build, and soon.

No, it is the community’s responsibility.  Demand an independent audit of the books, free of C-town influence, and last but not least, hold your elected officials responsible.  They work for the citizens.  Period.

But, until the problem is resolved, the CCVB Board needs to look long and hard at themselves.  Do you really need to talk so much?  Do you have to argue every single point of the meeting?  Do meetings really have to take three hours?

If that doesn’t work, each member should reflect on their own dignity, because if an outsider was watching, each member’s professional reputation could be injured beyond repair.  The silliness is damaging to everyone. And, no one on the Board leaves the meetings without their reputations unscathed.

But, the best advice is to be quiet. Be calm and listen.  Never forget that somewhere, some place, Dave Thomas is rolling over in his grave.

Joseph B. St. John

A/K/A Mr. MoJo Rising

Originally Published in March 7, 2012 Print Edition

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The February 27, 2012, CCVB Meeting: Most Everyone
Changed Seats, But the Craziness Remained the Same

Monday’s (February 27, 2012) Columbus Convention & Visitors Bureau (CCVB) Board meeting started off with a chance for redemption, but only for a moment.  In a peculiar situation, almost everyone on the board had changed seats around the board table, in order for some odd “physic voodoo” to take effect.  Clearly an attempt to change the “vibe” of the meeting, the feel-good newness only lasted for a few minutes.

Before peace, harmony and love could settle in, the sticky problem of the City’s “Bridge to Nowhere” reared its ugly head.  The fiasco officially known as the “Old Highway 82 Bridge Restoration Project” is the bad idea that will not go away. This time it introduced itself as the “Monster That Ate the $50,000 Windfall from the Taxpayers” (The extra greenbacks were the result of higher- than-expected receipts from the restaurant tax.). Overall, the CCVB will “fork over” $133,000 to the bridge project.

Bart Wise, Treasurer of the CCVB, advised that this money would be needed to help pay for the structure that should draw tourists from as far away as Caledonia to see its marvel.  Much to the surprise of Bernard Buckhalter, the CCVB had not budgeted any money for the project, this fiscal year.  However, Mr. Wise felt the CCVB was obligated to ensure they had the money to pay their fair share of this Mayor-driven project.

This left some Board members stunned, as this was the first they had heard of the plan to spend the $50,000 on the bridge.  This is a recurring theme in which many board members do not see what is being presented at the CCVB meeting until meeting time. True to form, Mr. Buckhalter was not impressed and stated so in about 5,000 words.

As the torture continued, the “Great Credit Card Debate of 2011-12” waged on in its next chapter of ineptness. For those of you who just moved to Lowndes County or just found this site, many members of the community believe that the holders of these cards, over the past several years, have had the discipline of a drunken hobo digging through a trash can.

On cue, the raging of alarms went off, and excitement filled the room.  Somewhere, some place, at some time, audits have been done and, it appears, during the past couple of years, over $20,000 has been charged, in one month, on the credit card, for a variety of reasons.

Now, it is hard to get a straight answer, because the meeting breaks down to personal grudge matches, where people who obviously hate each other’s “guts” lose their minds, as well as their dignity.  And, make no mistake about it; right, wrong or indifferent, the table is set…with Whirllie Byrd and Bernard Buckhalter on one side; Bart Wise, Mark Castleberry and Rissa Lawrence on the other side; and all of the other board members just wishing they could go home.

Through all of this confusion and psychosis, here are some of the highlights:

Just under $20,000 of credit card charges that were originally characterized as “undocumented” and “unsubstantiated” are now being referred to as an “accounting error”.

Over a protracted time, the CCVB paid its bills online, with no receipts or records kept.  This includes insurance premiums and credit card bills.

And somehow, some way, $35,000 was paid to three employees for doing some type of cleaning and moving.  And, guess what?  It’s unclear as to whether proper payroll records were maintained for these employees.  They hunted two of them down to sort out the mess, but the other one refused to give his social security number.  The CCVB is perplexed as to what to do now.

Can anyone say “insanity”?

But, it’s alright boys and girls.  Bart Wise reported that the auditors said the CCVB is doing much better now.  Of course, he forgot to mention that the only way you could do worse is…oh, sorry; there is no way to do worse.

Meanwhile, Nancy Carpenter made the obligatory “just cut up the credit card” speech and Bart seconded the argument…but then lamented that the CCVB could not do business without one.  This all occurred while Mr. Buckhalter repeated that he did not want to see the credit cards abused again, at least 93 times.

After much weeping and gnashing of teeth, the board agreed to limit spending to $1,000 per purchase without board approval.  So that means you could buy 20 items, at $999.99 each, and run the bill up again.  But, why spoil the party with a little simple math?

And, just when you thought the bowels of hell could not get darker, they did.  They hired a lawyer. Or tried to do so.

This part of the meeting can be summed up in 17 words.  Does anyone on the CCVB Board have a clue as to what time of day it is?

First, Mr. Buckhalter wanted to give the contract to the lowest bidder, like the CCVB was building a spaceship.

Second, Mr. Castleberry questioned Wil Colom’s credentials to serve as the CCVB attorney.  Note to Mark:  Go ask the “W” for their opinion of his credentials.  I am sure he would get a begrudging “A+.”

Also, during this discussion, Rissa Lawrence brought up Nadia Dale’s relationship with Scott Colom.  Because of this complaint, Dale recused herself from the vote.  No word yet on how Rissa Lawrence feels about the Mayor and a certain bail bondsperson.  I am sure she will mention it to him, when the CCVB gives him the check for the bridge.

Last, but not least, the winner was Chris Latimer, a partner of the Mitchell, McNutt and Sams law firm.  Whirllie Byrd thought this was a conflict, since there was litigation against the law firm over money paid to David Sanders in 2011. Nancy Carpenter wanted to hire Mr. Latimer because he would be receptive to her needs.  Not that she had ever worked with him, but it’s okay – Mark Castleberry had.  Surely Nancy and Mark never talked about it.

The subject of race now became a concern.  Nadia Dale stated she believed it was a good opportunity to hire a minority; Mr. Buckhalter echoed that sentiment, but to no avail…the goose was cooked.  Mr. Latimer is the new CCVB attorney.

But, it’s okay.  He won’t be at meetings…just when they need him.  No one could make this stuff up.  It’s scary, but true!

Now, the party really “got to” rocking…it was money time.

The two water-boarding victims, on Monday, were Amber Brislin and Leroy Brooks.

In a bizarre twist, The CCVB and staff decided to cut Market Street Festival’s grant allocation from the $20,000 they received last year, to just over $11,000 this year.  Citing the usual “we don’t have any money” theme (except for special projects and bridge debacles), they slashed the event.  But, wait – it gets better. Stand by for this logic….Rissa Lawrence was adamant that, since the Market Street Festival had been fiscally responsible over the years and had saved, “seed money,” of just over 13,000 dollars for this year’s event, they did not need to be funded at the level requested.

That’s right, campers; in “Rissa’s World” you should be punished for being fiscally responsible.  Dewitt Hicks hit the nail on the head when he said, “If we don’t fund this festival, we will look like we don’t know what we are doing.”

Several votes were taken, with George Swales finally switching his vote and the Market Street Festival did receive $15,000.  As Ms. Brislin stated, “Giving Market Street only $9,000 would be a disgrace to the tax payers.”  The Board did save some face by giving $15,000.

But, just when you thought the board couldn’t look any more impotent, they did.  Harvey Myrick joined the fray, at the last moment, and announced he would not vote, since he was late. However, he then anointed himself as “de facto” president of the board, by saying he would vote only if there was a tie, and then he eventually voted.

Yep, and George and the board did…..nothing.  They let it happen.  And, guess what -Leroy Brooks and the Juneteenth organizers got $14,000 for their festival.  Earlier in the evening, Leroy Brooks had stated that if his organization could only get $9,400 dollars that the board proposed, he would not take the money.  His event would be cancelled.

When voting time came, he received $14,000.  And why?  Because Mr. Myrick was the deciding vote.  If Myrick had been at the meeting, from the beginning, would the CCVB have another attorney? Would Market Street have received all 20,000 dollars?  We don’t know, but we should know this: if a member misses the vast majority of the meeting, he should not be allowed to vote.  It was wrong and it was insane, or as you know by now, it was business as usual.

Once again, it was a night of which the board should be ashamed, but they are not.  They left the meeting, acting as if they had accomplished something other than tomfoolery, and they are wrong.  The only real question to ask now is, “How long does the community allow this absurdity to continue?”  The answer is, “It should have been over months ago!”

Watch for the next installment of “It Came from the Planet CCVB.”

Note:

Ms. Byrd asked for a State Audit of the CCVB’s finances.  She could not even muster a second to the motion.  Hmmmmmm…Wonder why?

Joseph B. St. John

MR. MoJo Rising

Originally Published in March 7, 2012 Print Edition

Reader Comments

Susan Shelton Foster Says:
February 29, 2012 at 11:58 am
This all makes my brain spin and then, when I regain my balance, I just want to slap sense into all of them.

sam Says:

February 29, 2012 at 12:42 pm
Can’t ya’ll see that it’s the City against the County? Harvey is a loose cannon! The Link is trying to control and call the shots. Leroy is out to get his fair cut. Market Street is the only true festival. All the other crap is just that, CRAP. The bridge to nowhere is a total waste of time and money. MDOT gave 1 mil, the City, County and CVB gave another mil. That is all that should be spend on the stupid bridge. Two million dollars on a bridge to nowhere. Get real. We are driving on streets that are way beyond their time, a school system that is broke, and a city that is hanging by threads. The CVB is a total disgrace and should be redone or dismantled. Look at who is on this board. Someone has said it was set up to fail. I think they are right on!

david Says:
February 29, 2012 at 8:25 pm
Ya’ll should have let Leroy walk out. To give him as much money as Main Street is crazy. Where is all the money the CCVB used to have? I agree that there should be an audit. The credit card should have a $100 limit. I bet there will be more $200 meals put on it. Someone should have said that no spouse can eat free. I also agree that there are 3 or 4 board members that should not be on any board. It does look like it is a stacked deck. Too many jokers. Also, why is Mr. Buckhalter taking over? I thought Mr. Swales was the chairman. If it had 3 rings, it would be a real circus. What a shame. Thanks, Joe, for letting us know what is going on with our money.

robert Says:
March 1, 2012 at 6:45 pm
Thanks to the mismanagement by the CCVB Board, there will never be any more add-on taxes, like this. If it was sent to Jackson for approval anytime soon, it would not pass. I was told this by the Senator from Lowndes County. This was a good idea, but the wrong board members running it. This board will never get it together – like the City Council. Eat at home and save your tax money. A shame.

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