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Meals, money and Musicfest

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Commissioners divided over how to evaluate tourism director

By Stephen Lega

The Lebanon Tourist and Convention Commission's regular business may have been overshadowed by a discussion about Executive Director Chris Hamilton's job performance.

During a meeting that lasted more than four hours, commissioners questioned a $119 restaurant bill that was turned in as part of a campaign that they had asked the executive director to undertake. In the same meeting, the commission approved $12,000 in funds for a barbecue festival even though the commissioners had been informed that they had already overcommitted their available grant funds.

Requests

Three requests were presented Feb. 14 by St. Catharine College's Fine Arts Committee, Lebanon Main Street Committee and the Marion County Sluggers softball team.

Before the commission made any decisions about new funding, however, Commission Chairwoman Carlotta Brussell asked Hamilton about the grant funds available in the commission's budget.

"We probably got about $9,000 left," Hamilton said. "We have commitments yet to be paid to the tune of $14,000."

Brussell clarified the commission's grant fund issue before any decisions were made.

"So, as of right now we have no money for grants for the rest of the fiscal year?" she asked.

"According to the budget," Commissioner David Winebrenner Jr. replied.

After a lengthy discussion, the commission approved $12,000 toward the 2011 Bourbon and BBQ Musicfest. It tabled a decision about an $8,500 request for a local art event and declined a $2,750 request to help bring the Harlem Wizards (who are similar to the Harlem Globetrotters) to town as a fund-raiser for a local softball team.

Kenny Marrett spoke to the board on behalf of the Lebanon Main Street Committee about funding for the Heart of Kentucky Bourbon and BBQ Musicfest. The Main Street Committee had requested $19,800 from the tourism commission.

Marrett told the commission that this year's Musicfest will be sanctioned under the Kansas City Barbecue Society.

"A lot of professional teams will not come to an event unless you are sanctioned," Marrett said.

The event will bring people to town for three days, according to the proposal. Cooking teams are expected to arrive May 19 with the event taking place May 20-21.

Marrett added that Jim Beam is hoping to make the Musicfest part of a central Kentucky barbecue circuit, and he included a proclamation from Gov. Steve Beshear declaring Musicfest to be a state championship event.

Marrett acknowledged that the cook-off in and of itself may not necessarily attract a lot of spectators, which is why other activities are being planned around the event.

"We're going to provide food, arts and crafts, entertainment and a place for civic row," Marrett said.

He added that they are expecting 20 teams since this is the first year it is a sanctioned event, but they hope to make it one of the premier events in the state.

During their discussion, the commissioners quickly dismissed funding for a proposed $7,000 utility upgrade on ML King Avenue.

Winebrenner said that ethically he felt he and Lund should abstain from voting on the Musicfest. Winebrenner is a member of the Rotary Club, which will benefit from adult beverage sales during the festival, and Lund is a member of Main Street, which is the organization requesting the funds. That didn't prevent them from commenting on the project, however.

"Having abstained, I think this is a project that could be another Ham Days," Lund said.

Thirty-one certified judges are required for this event, and gratuities would be provided to encourage the judges to stay overnight. Winebrenner was concerned that the commission's funds could be paying for hotel rooms under the proposal. He said he would prefer to have people who are paying for their own rooms.

Without the utility upgrade for consideration, the request to the commission was $12,800. To make back that size investment, Winebrenner estimated that the event would need to generate $512,000 in revenue throughout the community.

"We're creating something new, and we got to take some chances," Lund said. "I think this is a good project to take a chance on."

He added that he'd spoken with officials with Beam Global (Jim Beam's parent company) and they were supportive of the Musicfest.

Winebrenner reminded the commissioners that making big decisions early in the fiscal year was having an impact on other decisions they could make.

"Now we're at this point where we got these commitments, and we're out of funds for something that could be more significant possibly than the investment in the snowflakes," he said.

There was some discussion of basing the commission's funding on the Main Street Committee raising matching funds from other sources, but Lund instead made a motion to approve $12,000 for the event, although later he said he hated to commit funds that the commission doesn't have. Lund suggested taking money from the advertising budget.

Hamilton said he would strongly advise against that, although he stated that he thought the Musicfest is a good idea for an event.

"From a marketing and promotional standpoint, it's wonderful," he said.

However, the commission needed to decide if it also wanted to be a significant underwriter for the event, Hamilton said.

Hamilton did say that other areas of the budget may come up under budget. He said he would check with the auditor to see if the commission had to amend its budget if a line item was over budget, but the overall budget was OK. He suggested that the commission make its funding approval contingent on whether they could find the money in the budget.

In the end, the commission voted 3-0 to approve $12,000 in funds for Musicfest contingent on Hamilton finding the money in the budget and on the auditor clearing the changes. Lund and Winebrenner abstained from voting.

The commission unanimously voted to table a decision until July regarding an $8,500 request from the St. Catharine College Fine Arts Committee for a plein air project.

"That's a fancy French word for going out into the countryside and painting the landscape and the architecture," said Susan Spalding, a fine arts professor at St. Catharine.

The request was being presented as part of a planned 2011 Tri-County Plein Air Event to be held Oct. 13-15 in Bardstown, Lebanon and Springfield. The organizers estimated that 75 artists would participate, many of whom had their own followers who would come for the opportunity to interact with the artists and to see them working.

Lund asked why the fine arts committee was requesting $8,500 from Lebanon and Springfield, but only $3,000 from the Bardstown tourism commission. Spalding replied that Bardstown businesses would likely make up the funding difference.

The commission declined the third request it received Feb. 14. David Ford requested $2,750 for a fund-raiser for the Marion County Sluggers. The event involved an April 16 basketball game at Marion County High School featuring the Harlem Wizards and a team of local celebrities.

The commissioners said they like the project but they would like to see it grow into a two-day event. The commissioners also noted that the event was projected to make $5,300 for the Sluggers, which meant the Sluggers would make money even without the commission's financial support.

The commission voted 4-0 to decline the funding with Winebrenner abstaining, citing a business relationship he has with Ford.

Dinner conversation

While the requests took up a considerable amount of time, the commission spent even more time discussing the tourism director.

Commissioner Nancy Higdon said she and Brussell reviewed the receipts for recent meals purchased by the executive director and the administrative assistant at local restaurants.

"Everything looked OK, except we questioned $119.22 expenditure to Henning's," Higdon said.

In August, former commissioner Jim Richardson suggested that Hamilton have a meal at each of the local restaurants and discuss the tourism commission with the manager. Lawson, who owns multiple fast food restaurants in town, also expressed support for the idea. From September through February, Hamilton included in his monthly report which restaurants he and administrative assistant Carla Wagner had visited the previous month. Hamilton reported his visit to Henning's in the February report with a note that he and Wagner had visited all the eateries in Lebanon.

The total cost of dining (meals and mileage) was $802.53, an average of $22.29 per restaurant, according to information provided by Hamilton.

The commission did not set a fixed amount to be spent for the restaurant campaign, and Winebrenner noted that it did not set a minimum or maximum for what Hamilton should spend at each restaurant.

Hamilton said he'd checked with the auditor, and he was told that there were not any issues from his perspective about the meals.

Other commissioners did have issues, however.

"When I first saw the invoice I was really upset, and I think I am still upset. I think it was totally out of the bounds of good reasoning," Brussell said about the meal at Henning's.

Higdon added that she did not think it was appropriate to purchase alcoholic beverages.

Hamilton said he and Wagner bought similar meals wherever they went. Those meals included salads, an entree, a large drink and dessert. One of the differences is that they ate dinner at Henning's while they ate lunch at the other restaurants. He said they ordered the alcoholic drinks with their meal at Henning's.

Hamilton also reminded the commission that he had questioned whether this campaign was a good use of tourism dollars when it was first proposed.

"We by no means were trying to abuse the directive," he said.

Lawson said he had been contacted by some other restaurant owners who were upset that Hamilton and Wagner hadn't spent more in their dining establishments.

Lund said the ultimate fiscal responsibility falls on the tourism commission itself. Brussell agreed, but she reiterated that she thought the meal at Henning's was bad judgment.

Hamilton spoke in his defense.

"If you go back over the past six years, you will see that I've never abused the taxpayers dollars," he said.

He added that he felt the commissioners were painting an ugly picture, and he didn't understand why they were making it such a big deal.

"[With] the scrutiny this board has been under, we've had to validate ourselves - every dime that we spend, the way we judge the grants that come before us and the way we spend that money," Brussell replied. "I don't think this was a good use."

The tension from the discussion of the Henning's meal carried over into the executive director's report and the staff evaluation discussion.

Each commissioner previously filled out an employee evaluation form, and Brussell had compiled the answers onto one form, which she distributed during the Feb. 14 meeting. The form included a number of categories under four areas: administration, interpersonal, individual and leadership. The evaluation form suggests that the five sitting commissioners (two seats remain vacant at this time) are deeply divided about Hamilton's performance. He received scores ranging from unsatisfactory to excellent, sometimes within the same category.

The overall average on his form was listed as good, however.

The commissioners were also divided over how much weight to give to the evaluation form.

Winebrenner said he felt Hamilton's performance should be evaluated equally on quantitative measures, such as increasing restaurant and hotel revenue and on bringing new events to the community, and on qualitative measures, such as communication skills and organization.

Brussell agreed that quantitative measures should be part of the evaluation, but she did not think it should count for 50 percent of the process. Higdon also questioned how much of the increased revenue could be attributed to tourism since industries create many of the local hotel stays.

Hamilton had his own concerns about criteria being assessed in Brussell's evaluation form.

"Are our successes really this list of things here?" he said, referring to the evaluation form. "Or are our successes the conferences and the sporting events and the bus tours and the tourism business?"

Hamilton said he took to heart comments that were made in recent meetings, and using those comments, he crafted a survey through Survey Monkey, which he said he sent to people who work with him in the community.

He received high marks, according to that survey, for cooperation and collaboration, communications, working as a team, clarity of his responses to questions, and their experiences working with him. Respondents to the survey included members of a variety of community organizations, including the Kentucky Fellowship of Musicians, the library, business officials, the fair board and local media representatives.

Dennis George, who has been asked to fill a vacant seat on the tourism commission, asked if he could speak. He said he was a proponent of tourism, and he voted to create the commission when he served previously on the city council.

"If public perception carries as much weight as bringing in new events, I think we're setting [Hamilton] up to fail," George said.

He said a segment of the community would be against tourism even if Jesus Christ was the executive director simply because they don't like the tourism tax. Likewise, he said there are other groups who have brought proposals to the commission that were not funded. As far as many of them are concerned, Hamilton turned them down, George said.

He added that the financial aspects of Hamilton's job should carry more weight than public perceptions. He also reminded the commissioners that tourism isn't focused on people in the community; it's focused on getting people who live outside the community to come here.

"I have a fear that people in the community feel like the money in your pot is a slush fund to help them sponsor other events," George said. "That's money that, if they don't have it, they go to tourism."

Hamilton pointed out that his monthly reports to the commission were based on the goals that had been set by the commission.

Brussell said those are old goals. She added that she had tried having a planning meeting to set some new ones but that hadn't happened yet.

Near the end of the meeting, Higdon made a motion to go into closed session to discuss possible disciplinary action. Everyone, except Hamilton and the commissioners, were asked to leave the room at that time. The commission remained in closed session for more than an hour, but when they returned to open session, no disciplinary action was taken.

The commission concluded the meeting by approving a motion by Winebrenner to adopt the City of Lebanon's reimbursement policy, with an exception for marketing purposes.