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Legality of tourism donation questioned
Neal, Mike.jpg
Mike Neal

McMinnville officials are considering financial oversight of the city’s Tourism Development Board due to a recent expenditure that may have been illegal. 

The state is being asked its opinion on a $13,333 allocation that is slated to be one of three made annually to Cumberland Caverns for a total of $40,000. 

“This sounds like money laundering to me,” said Alderman Everett Brock, during Tuesday night’s Board of Mayor and Aldermen meeting.

After the meeting, Alderman Mike Neal said, “We created a monster when we created the Tourism Development Board.”

The incident in question is an October 2019 decision by Tourism Development Board members to spend $40,000 on Cumberland Caverns Live sponsorship. TDB bylaws restrict its tourism efforts to within the corporate boundaries of the city. 

To bypass that, the Warren County Chamber of Commerce was used as a pass thru to make the allocation. The Chamber’s reach is countywide.

“TDB can make a donation to the Chamber,” said Brock. “They are allowed to do that. The problem here is they told the Chamber what to do with the money. They marked it for Cumberland Caverns Live sponsorship. That’s the problem here.”

TDB members at that time were Mandy Eller, Chad McGee, Christy Ross, Katie Kemezis, John Partin, Mayor Ben Newman and Michael Griffith. 

According to the meeting minutes dated Oct. 15, 2019 the “motion was made by Christy Ross that $40,000 over three years would be allocated to the Chamber of Commerce to sponsor Cumberland Caverns with advertising including billboards, email, etc.”

The motion was seconded by Eller and carried unanimously. 

Members then unanimously voted for Eller to oversee the implementation of the allocation. 

According to meeting minutes dated Dec. 9, “Michael Griffith verified that the check had been sent in the amount of $13,333.33 for the 2020 sponsorship. Mandy Eller reported that Cumberland Caverns Live gave us the Chandelier sponsorship level …”

On Tuesday night, officials instructed city attorney Tim Pirtle to construct a timeline of events and then present that information to Tennessee Comptroller Justin P. Wilson for his opinion on the legality surrounding the Tourism Development Board’s actions.

Alderman Mike Neal accused TDB members of skirting the bylaws they should be following.

“I think they have a problem seeing us as partners,” said Neal. “I see a resentment in these bylaws that we’ve passed, that there are efforts made to negate them and go around them in every way they can.”

Eller replied, “Because they are limited.” 

“They are still the bylaws,” said Neal. “It’s like any law. Any law limits somebody from doing something.”

Eller replied, “The TDB is set to work on a mission, but because of the way the Tourism Development Board is set up, as a component of the city, it blocks us from a lot of the work that we could do. It complicates it.”

“Don’t you think there needs to be some guidance, some instructions from the board that created it? Some boundaries,” said Neal. 

Eller replied, “Yes, absolutely, but … I do agree with that, but you control the board. You control the bylaws. If you want to change it, please do. I hope that we can be part of that conversation. It needs work. It needs to be improved. It needs to be revisited.”

Neal made a motion that TDB’s bylaws be amended with a $10,000 expenditure limit without Board of Mayor and Aldermen approval. Brock gave a second to the motion. 

“I think they need to be treated like any other committee and any expenditure over $10,000 needs to come to this board and let us look at it and consider it,” said Neal. 

Newman defended TDB’s actions and expressed hesitation for a spending limit. 

“I think it was a fine action to take,” said Newman. “I don’t think we are in a situation. You’ve made it a situation.”

Neal replied, “I haven’t made it one. It is a situation. I want to do what’s right. You probably don’t, but I want to do what’s right and what’s legal. I don’t want to skirt the law.”

“I want to do what’s right and I think we are,” said Newman. “I’m fine with getting the opinion, but I don’t think we are doing anything wrong.” 

Neal replied, “To me, if you have to send your money through the backdoor to get it to somebody else, you are doing something wrong.”

Newman replied, “No, you are not. You are doing what’s legally available to you.”

Alderman Ryle Chastain motioned to table instituting a $10,000 spending limit, until the board’s next regular session Jan. 28 when Tourism Development Board members should be present for an open discussion. That motion passed 5-2.

Newman, Chastain and Aldermen Steve Harvey, Kate Alsbrook and Rachel Kirby voted in favor of postponement. Neal and Brock voted against it. 

After the meeting, Neal stated, “We created a monster when we created the Tourism Development Board. The only real solution would be to disband it. I don’t believe there is enough support on the board for that. I don’t think a $10,000 spending limit is unreasonable.”

Officials urged Pirtle to press Tennessee Comptroller Justin P. Wilson for his legal opinion on TDB’s actions by Jan. 28.