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An unfortunate incident that the travel board handled well

November 16, 2003|by TIM ROWLAND

The Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau split from county government and went fully private in 1997. On Oct. 27, the board's executive director resigned under pressure, in the wake of an investigation into financial irregularities.

So naturally, there's going to be the temptation to connect the dots and proclaim that privatization didn't work.

But in this instance it did work, and it likely worked far better than it would have if it were still an arm of county government. In fact, the county could take a lesson from the travel board on how to handle a personnel crisis.

Ousting director Ben Hart was probably the most difficult and agonizing move the board has ever had the misfortune of performing. Hart was well-liked by board leadership, which, although clearly upset, certainly did not want him to endure any more public and personal pain than was necessary.

But in a routine inspection, the board's sharp accountant discovered some financial transactions that didn't add up, and that touched off a chain of events that included three noticeable moves:

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First, the board told the public why Hart was asked to resign. Second, when asked, it made public the letter of termination it sent to Hart. Third, it provided the press with copies of its budget.

Understand, the board probably, but not necessarily, had to do this. The board spends public (room tax) money, but it is a private agency. At the very least, the board could have hung its hat on the private agency peg, and refused to divulge any of its inner works short of court order.

The press would have filed suits, the case would have been argued in front of a judge and there would have been countless stories in the paper as the melodrama progressed through the legal system.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The county took a similar tack in its secret dealings with former Economic Development Commission chief John Howard, whom commissioners removed from office without saying why.

The affair turned into a public bloodbath, with repeated, year-long news stories, court hearings, legal papers and significant public expense

The secrecy arguably cost at least one and maybe two commissioners their jobs as the voters reacted with anger to what it deemed a cover-up.

Candidate John Munson made front-page headlines by demanding the county open the Howard case to the public (a position he later flip-flopped on once in office) and there is almost no question that Munson is a commissioner today because of the county's ham-handed attempt at unjustified secrecy.

Whether the CVB learned from the Howard case or it instinctively knew on its own to do the right thing is anyone's guess. But the bottom line is that while the public board got it wrong, the private board got it right.

The county may promise "tighter oversight" of the tourism board, but truth is, it's hard to see how that would have helped in the Hart case or would help in the future. Indeed, the CVB probably detected the problem sooner than the county ever would have, and dealt with it better.

Historically, the County Commissioners have yawned at tourism. They once hired a CVB director whose extensive expertise did not include travel, and had once proclaimed that "tourism is not a business." In the 1990s, those concerned with travel privately grumbled that Greg Snook, the commissioners' representative on the tourism board, routinely failed to show up for its meetings and did not communicate the board's interests to the other commissioners.

Most recently, the county grabbed a majority of the room tax revenue and began handing it out across the county in a fashion that more resembled an attempt to curry political favors than in any concentrated, "big blow" for tourism and economic development - which was lawmakers' intent.

Certainly with the CVB there are issues of concern. It spends almost $400,000 of its budget on administration and operations, leaving only $381,000 for actual marketing and promotion.

Perhaps even the hotel owners themselves would acknowledge that these figures may be in need of adjustment. (It's doubtful, however, that tighter county oversight would be of help here. When Ron Stansbury was president of the board he tried to streamline the agency and was rewarded with heat from, you guessed it, the County Commissioners).

As the board interviews for a new director, it would be good to hear the candidates' thoughts about administration-to-marketing ratios.

But structurally speaking, the board appears to be in good shape. Unfortunately, perhaps, we have learned that the CVB has safeguards in place to catch trouble when it arises and it also has the savvy to deal publicly with the issue in a way that will cause the least public pain. Not every board in the county can make that claim.




Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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