Frustration at the management of Lincoln City's Visitor & Convention Bureau boiled over at the Monday, July 25, meeting of Lincoln City Council, with one member saying he feels elected officials have no say in how the community's tourism promotion dollars are spent.
"It's just hard to get listened to, even on any level," Councilor Gary Ellingson said. "It seems like the VCB will get something into its head and it gets through [City Manager] David [Hawker] and then it gets rammed down our throats."
Ellingson's comments came as councilors debated whether to approve changes to the VCB's guidelines for tourism development grants - changes that he said were engineered to mask the fact that the grant procedure has been "done wrong" for the past two years.
Hawker interrupted Ellingson's comments, saying that criticism of VCB Executive Director Sandy Pfaff should be directed to him in private rather than aired in public.
Ellingson said his attempts to communicate his concerns privately have yielded no action and reminded Hawker of a recent memo in which the city manager said that stifling public comment has a chilling effect on democracy.
"I am trying to make a public comment," Ellingson said, "and you are trying to chill me."
Hawker reminded Ellingson that Council can dismiss the city manager with a simple majority vote.
Mayor Dick Anderson intervened, trying to guide discussion back to the agenda item - whether Council should approve changes in the criteria for distributing up to $75,000 a year in tourism development grants.
Earlier in the discussion, Pfaff told councilors that the Visitor and Convention Committee had reviewed the grant program, which was set up in 2008, after receiving several applications that she said fit the spirit but not the language of the application guidelines.
She said the committee held a July 10 workshop to discuss changes to the guidelines, settling on four main recommendations (see panel).
The revised guidelines were scheduled for discussion at Council's July 11 meeting but were pulled from the agenda due to a citizen complaint that the workshop had not been open to the public.
Both Pfaff and Hawker said the lack of a public forum was caused by a miscommunication between the pair.
"It was something that I'm glad got caught," Hawker said. "And I'm glad that we did whatever we could to correct it."
Pfaff rescheduled the workshop for July 18, posting notice on the City's website and in the July 13 edition of The News Guard.
When no members of the public showed up for the public workshop, committee members promptly approved the same revisions that they had decided on in the previous session - with one minor clarification.
Anderson said he was surprised to see the item come back to Council so quickly and was disappointed that the City had not made a "larger overture" to the public on the issue.
Councilor Gordon Eggleton agreed, saying he felt five days' notice was inadequate and that more people would have attended the workshop had more notice been given.
Hawker said the City used the same notice procedures that it uses for "virtually everything else" and that he has never had complaints in the past.
"It doesn't matter whether there's public [attendence]," he said before the council meeting. "It only matters that they have the opportunity."
Oregon's public meeting law requires that notice of public meetings be "reasonably calculated to give actual notice to interested persons" but does not specify how many days' notice should be given.
A public meetings law guide published by Open Oregon and the Oregon Department of Justice recommends giving "a week to 10 days" of notice.
Pfaff said she felt the need to have the revised guidelines approved quickly so that they could be applied to the next round of grant applications, which are subject to an Aug. 31 deadline.
Local contractor Jim Hoover, who first raised complaints about the Visitor and Convention Committee's interpretation of the existing guidelines, said the body had rewritten the document so that "they can carry on doing what they have been doing."
Councilor Roger Sprague said he would not approve the revisions until other issues at the VCB are addressed.
"I'm getting a lot of concerns about dissatisfaction with the operation of the VCB," he said. "This just seems to be another one of those things."
But Councilor Chester Noreikis said he feels Pfaff and her staff are working well and developing visitor attractions.
"I don't have the animosity toward the VCB that seems to exist with a significant portion of the council here," he said.
Noreikis proposed that Council approve the revised guidelines but his motion died for lack of second.
Instead, councilors agreed with a proposal from Councilor Henry Quandt to discuss the proposed revisions at their Aug. 8 meeting, to give members time to digest the proposals and give the public another chance to comment.
The motion passed with Ellingson and Eggleton against.
Pfaff said the proposed revisions to the VCB grant guidelines focus on four main areas:
- Authorizing grants for fundraising or marketing activities that occur more than 5 miles from Lincoln City. Pfaff said it makes no sense to impose the 5-mile rule on events like the Sitka Invitational, which are designed to cater to people in the Valley and draw them to the Coast.
- Giving successful grantees 90 percent of the funds up front and 10 percent upon completion - rather than the current formula of half up front, a quarter after completion and a quarter upon receipt of a final report. Pfaff said many organizations have "next to no money" and need the cash up front to be successful. She also said the proposed structure would reduce the number of reports that grantees need to write from three to two.
- Clarifying that all types of tax-exempt organizations - not just those registered as 501c(3)s are eligible for grant funding.
- Scrapping the 100-point system for ranking applications, which Pfaff said committee members found "unwieldy." Instead, members have proposed determining whether each application meets, fails to meet or meets in part the criteria of need, viability and economic impact.