City debates CVB’s role

By Corene Brisendine

City commissioners on Tuesday took a hard look at the contract with the Chamber of Commerce governing what the Convention and Visitors Bureau can use the Transient Bed Tax revenues for.

Commissioner Wynn Butler said the decision to give $25,000 to the Fieldhouse Project group was outside the realm of what the contract allows. Butler said the money is to be used by the bureau to bring people to Manhattan who will stay in local hotels and promote tourism. He said paying for a study or giving grants fell outside that mandate.

Mayor John Matta said it should be the city commission’s responsibility to give money to private organizations to conduct a study, not the chamber’s or visitors bureau’s. He said public perception of what transpired with the chamber and the visitors bureau is the problem. He said while neither body did anything illegal, people perceive that the chamber has been pushing the Fieldhouse Project. If the decision to give grants for studies was solely at the discretion of the commission, it would allow for more transparency and reduce public misconceptions.

Commissioner Usha Reddi asked whether the chamber had ever given money to fund studies, and Lyle Butler, chamber president, said the chamber had in the past. He said some of those studies helped bring about things like new airlines serving Manhattan, the Flint Hills Discovery Center and the size and scope of the meeting space at the convention center. He said the chamber had also funded studies that did not develop into projects. One of those studies was for a horse park, but the study came back as not feasible for Manhattan. He said even if the proposed projects do not get developed, the studies provide a great deal of information about people living in and visiting Manhattan.

He said the decision to help fund the Fieldhouse Project study was not a commitment to the project but rather a way to assess the wants and needs of the community, which helps the chamber determine what venues need to be promoted or brought into the community.

Reddi said she was satisfied that the chamber had not set a new precedent but acted as it had in the past on funding studies for various projects.

Commissioner Butler, however, said, “It’s not the first time, but hopefully it will be the last.”

He said he wants the contract changed to specifically forbid the bureau to give grants or fund studies. He also said he wants an ex-officio representative on the CVB board who would be able to report back to the commission on decisions he believes are not within the scope of the visitors bureau’s power.

Reddi said she does not want to get into the business of “micro-managing” the chamber because that was not what the commission was charged with doing. She said it is the responsibility of the commission to hire managers who are experts in specific fields and manage those managers.

Commissioner Butler agreed. He said he is not happy with how the money was being managed by the chamber and visitors bureau, and he wants a new manager.

Commissioner Karen McCulloh said the city needs several services, and it contracts for those services. She said while the commission may not agree with all the decisions of those managers, it was in the best interest of the city to let them do their jobs.

“I don’t think we should delineate everything the chamber does,” she said. “We don’t have to agree with everything they do.”

She said it is not “a pot of money that belongs to the city commission.” She said it is supposed to be used “to look at all the ways we can bring” people to Manhattan. She said quality of life is exceedingly important in Manhattan, and allowing the chamber to find what attractions would best suit this community and help “make Manhattan an oasis” is in the best interest of the city.

Matta said he thinks the board should be independent of the chamber. City Manager Ron Fehr said the original charter stated the mayor was the one to appoint the members of the CVB board, but in 1998 it was put under the control of the chamber to appoint the members.

Fehr said in his research he has yet to find a resolution or ordinance that changed the way people were appointed to that board, but he was still looking into it.

Matta said if there was no change in the written law, he wants control to be moved back to the commission and a commissioner should also sit on the board. He said the county commission has an ex-officio member on the board, and he does not understand why the city commission doesn’t.

Commissioner Rich Jankovich said the commission was getting the role of an ex-officio member confused with that of a voting member. He said an ex-officio member does not have any say in the decision-making process of the board but instead reports to the board on what the commission is doing and reports to the commission what decisions the board made. He also said the issue had been blown out of proportion.

“Somebody got burned, and it has grown way bigger than what was there,” he said.

Jankovich said while the charter does not specifically forbid or condone the visitors bureau from giving grants and funding private studies, he thinks the decision to fund the Fieldhouse Project study is “in the spirit of their guidelines.”

Matta asked Fehr to put the chamber contract on a work session agenda for the commission to debate what changes, if any, needed to be considered. Fehr said typically that contract is reviewed after the budget has been finalized by the city.

Reddi said making changes to the contract may “do more harm than good.”

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