Someday, the Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau may be cited in an ethics textbook.
It will not be a flattering account.
In today’s edition of The Dispatch, reporter Jeff Clark takes a closer look at how the taxpayer money under the CVB’s control is administered and how the CVB’s practices compare to other CVBs in the state. Readers will observe stark differences, but the biggest difference is one of ethics.
Unlike other CVBs, the elected officials who appoint the CVB board of trustees actively solicit funds to support the festivals they organize. It would be difficult to imagine a clearer case of conflict of interest than this.
Four elected officials regularly ask for CVB funds. Since 2010, festivals headed by District 5 Supervisor Leroy Brooks (Juneteenth), Ward 5 councilman Kabir Karriem (7th Avenue Heritage Festival) and District 4 Supervisor Jeff Smith and Ward 1 Councilman Gene Taylor (Townsend Blues Festival) have received a combined $116,500 in tax money grants from the CVB.
Since all of these elected officials actively participate in selecting the CVB board members who decide how the taxpayer money is distributed, it creates — at the very least — an appearance of a conflict of interest.
The elected officials defend their actions by saying that the state’s ethics laws do not prohibit asking for these funds. Under state law, elected officials cannot receive monetary benefits. But the law falls woefully short when it comes to other ways an elected official can profit from such arrangements. It is not difficult to see how staging a community festival can easily be viewed as a campaign tool for politicians eager to maintain their support in the community. For that reason, honorable politicians should not be soliciting taxpayer funds to promote their own causes.
Regrettably, it does not appear that we can expect our politicians to take the high road here.
The good news is that the CVB has the means to end this practice. It can amend its guidelines to prohibit elected officials from receiving funds. The question is whether the board has the courage and integrity to implement those changes.
To date, the board has not.
We are quick to note that our objection in these matters should not be viewed as a means of discrediting the festivals themselves. We recognize that community festivals play an important role in making our communities better places to live. Having said that, we do not believe that the CVB, founded by an act of the Legislature to promote tourism, is the proper source for funding community festivals whose contributions to tourism are very limited. And we certainly do not believe that festivals run by elected officials should have access to taxpayer money.
The money belongs to the public and should be used for the purposes in which it was intended.
If these festivals have real merit, they will prosper without involvement of elected officials. You will find no better example of that than the Martin Luther King Dream 365 event, which continues to flourish and engages the entire community. There are no elected officials running that event, which may not be a coincidence.
The CVB can put its house in order by implementing changes that prevent politicians from feeding at the public trough in such an egregious fashion. Such a move would restore public confidence in the CVB and ensure that taxpayer money is being used wisely and fairly.
That is not too much to ask. Nor too little.
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.