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Elected officials must push CVB to release information

November 20, 2003

When the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau gives its annual report to the county's General Assembly delegation today, some lawmakers may be tempted to make speeches about the wise use of taxpayers' money. That's okay with us, as long as they're looking in the mirror when they do that.

The CVB, which recently forced its executive director to resign over alleged financial irregularities, this week refused, at least temporarily, The Herald-Mail's request for information on the salary, expense account and benefits given to Ben Hart, its former executive director.

CVB is well within its rights to do that, because of the way in which it was incorporated.

But despite the legalities, the board still has a moral obligation to disclose how it spends taxpayers' money. How wise is it to set up a group that gets tax funds, but doesn't have to disclose how funds are spent?

If Washington County's state lawmakers don't do anything else in this session, they should amend the law so that any group that gets county tax funds be required to disclose its budget and expenses in detail.

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How was the current system set up? In 1996, a Tourism Structure Task Force recommended that CVB should be a public/private partnership.

Funded in part by a local room tax, its budget would have 60 percent go for marketing, 30 percent for salaries and 10 percent for future development. Thirty business, tourism and government leaders who attended a tourism roundtable in December of that year liked the idea.

In 1997, after the board balked at resigning to make way for a new group, lawmakers threatened to mandate it.

The CVB board backed down. The only legislative mandate it faces now is the requirement that it report to the delegation once a year. When the current problem surfaced, neither Hagerstown nor the county government had a copy of CVB's budget or even a list of its board members, though city and county representatives sit on the board.

Government officials did what was required, but not what was good business practice or responsible oversight. Ron Vitkun, CVB's chairman since April, this week promised that the 2004 budget - in full detail - would be provided to the county commissioners.

We welcome that, but elected officials need to make up for their past inattention by pushing CVB to release information on how much Hart was paid, what benefits he received and his expense acount.

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