Some council members seek more time to consider making more substantial changes in how Chamber and CVB are run

    The Crookston City Council at its Ways and Means Committee meeting on Monday approved a new contractual agreement between the City, Chamber and Convention and Visitors Bureau that isn’t much different from the contract dating back to 2006 that it replaces, but approving a new agreement was the most pressing recommendation put forth by the East Grand Forks city attorney that spent several weeks in the fall investigating a funding discrepancy involving the Chamber and CVB budgets.

    The new agreement calls for the Chamber to take 15 percent of the local lodging tax revenue that flows through the City and is funneled to the CVB. That’s the same percentage included in the 2006 agreement.

    At Large Council Member Bob Quanrud cast the lone vote against the new contract, citing his desire to have a couple more weeks to let council members and other stakeholders come up with ideas on how the City, Chamber and CVB could better work together in the future.

What transpired

    In the fall, it came to light that Chamber Executive Director Amanda Lien had been taking 20 percent of the CVB’s lodging tax revenue for the Chamber budget, and a controversy subsequently erupted that involved At Large City Council Member Bobby Baird, saying he was simply abiding by state statute when a public official suspects wrongdoing, alerting State officials to the Chamber/CVB funding discrepancy. Mayor Wayne Melbye and some council members learned of the kerfuffle via the media, and at a subsequent council meeting, voices were raised during an intense back-and-forth between the mayor and some council members.

    In order to avoid any conflicts of interest, East Grand Forks City Attorney Ron Galstad was asked to look into the matter. After an investigation that lasted several weeks, he submitted a comprehensive report of his findings, the chief of which was that Lien hadn’t intentionally committed any malfeasance or wrongdoing, and hadn’t personally gained from the funding discrepancy. Galstad called Lien’s actions a mistake and an oversight, and at the top of his list of recommendations that the council, Chamber and CVB should take going forward was the council approving a new agreement with the Chamber and CVB, and all stakeholders involved communicating in a more positive and productive fashion. Galstad also recommended that several other contracts between the City and various other entities that have been on the books for several years be reviewed, updated and approved.

    When Galstad’s findings were announced, Lien addressed the council and mayor and said the Chamber and CVB work together to improve the community with only the community’s best interests in mind. She also asked for public apologies from Baird, Ward 1 Council Member Jake Fee, CHEDA Executive Director Craig Hoiseth, and Chamber Board member Chris Fee.

    Lien has since resigned as Chamber executive director, announcing last week that she would be pursuing her masters degree from the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth as part of a cohort.

The new deal

    The new agreement, which City Finance Director Angel Weasner said was endorsed by both the Chamber and CVB boards of directors before coming before the council Monday, included some tweaks in the membership makeup of the boards and who is ex officio (non-voting) and who can vote on the boards, but beyond that, it was largely unchanged.

    That didn’t sit particularly well with some council members. Fee was the most vocal in expressing his concerns about the Chamber and CVB being perhaps too intertwined, and wondering if the Chamber possibly benefited too much from its close relationship with the CVB. Fee said he believes the CVB could be operated in less expensive fashion if it were its own entity and not involved directly with the Chamber.

    To that, Ward 5 Council Member Dale Stainbrook, who’s been a CVB Board member for around five years, said he didn’t know if either the Chamber or CVB could survive on their own in a community the size of Crookston.

    Melbye said it’s not necessarily up to the City or the council to dictate to the Chamber and CVB boards on how they spend their money.

    “I just think it leads to problems when they’re combined so much; if they were each on their own they’d have their own interests, like the CVB bringing people to town and promoting tourism and conventions. Otherwise, I think it gets muddled,” Fee said. “It says the CVB is a branch of the Chamber; and I don’t think that’s (the CVB’s) role at all.

    “I read through (Galstad’s findings) and it seems like the CVB props up the Chamber a little bit, and the CVB is about bringing people to town,” Fee continued. “I’m not saying don’t (vote in favor of the new contract), but I’m saying we haven’t even explored these things.”

    Ward 6 Council Member Tom Vedbraaten wondered how often CVB staff are doing things that “the Chamber should be doing.” But, to that, Melbye said it’s “pretty tough to split hairs like that.” And, Weasner added, the Chamber and CVB budgets, even when combined, are fairly small by comparison.

    Melbye said approving the new agreement amounted to everyone taking a “step back” to evaluate the situation, and then moving forward with the council, Chamber, CVB and community’s best interests in mind. If in a year or so it’s determined that things aren’t working as good as they could be or should be, the mayor said the matter can easily be brought up again for further consideration.

    “They take the money they have and do the best they can,” Melbye said. “If we’re not seeing results, we’ll take another step back and look at it again and try to position ourselves in the best way to move forward.”

    Fee said he thinks “there’s been a really big hole in bringing things to town lately,” and that making changes to the way the Chamber and CVB are operated might be a way to fill the hole.

    Ward 2 Council Member Steve Erickson said he thinks the CVB needs to have a clear, unmistakable mission, and that is utilizing lodging tax revenue to bring people to town and prevent local hotels and motels from closing their doors. “That, to me, and more than maybe some of this nitpicking, is the big deal,” Erickson said. “Let’s get this up and running; it doesn’t take an act of congress to change things later if we need to.”

    When Quanrud asked for more time to discuss council members’ concerns and consider other potential ideas and input, Melbye reiterated that both the Chamber and CVB boards had endorsed the new agreement, and that if they were going to meet again sometime in the next couple of weeks they’d likely want to have a specific reason to do so.

    “What are we going to ask the boards to change?” Ward 4 Council Member Dennis Regan interjected. “You want them to meet again, but for what? They already said this is OK.”

    Melbye said it’s not necessarily the council’s job to “micromanage these things.” He said ideas, input, feedback or any concerns should be directed at the people who are the “best fit” to hear it. “Then if you’re not satisfied with the response, you go up the ladder,” the mayor said.

    The updated agreement will be on the council’s Jan. 8 meeting agenda.