They are defined by two separate purposes and operate under two distinctive sets of bylaws, but years of conflicting opinions have left lingering questions and confusion over the relationship between the decades-old Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce and the younger Tahlequah Area Tourism Council.
With the resignation of chamber Executive Director David Moore and the firing of Tourism Director Kate Kelly in June, members of both boards are anxious to establish new job descriptions before hiring replacements for the two former community leaders. But chamber board members made it clear at their monthly meeting in July that some are willing to entertain – and perhaps even encourage – melding the two jobs into one.
Chamber President Steve Turner suggested this might be done by combining resources of the chamber and Tourism Council. In other words, if the chamber could get its hands on more of the city’s hotel-motel tax funds than the $900 per month for “rent” and “overhead” the Tourism Council already pays, it could boost the salary of future executive directors. Only a handful of board members spoke up, with some supportive of merging the two jobs, and others objecting. Outside the earshot of board members, opposition was stronger.
Mayor Jason Nichols, an ex-officio chamber board member, suggested during a recent meeting that a merger might offer “more bang for our buck.” At that time, the Press and others thought the idea was worth entertaining. But circumstances and further study have led many folks to look at the situation in a different light.
Bylaws declare the chamber’s purpose is “for the protection of the free enterprise system, improving the economic base of the community, and maintaining and improving the quality of life in the community.” When the Tourism Council was created by the chamber in February 2000, its purpose was to “promote the tourism of Tahlequah”; a few years later, its function evolved to “develop and recommend tourism promotion strategy and the expenditure of funds from the Tahlequah Hotel/Motel Room Tax. This council should encourage, promote, and foster tourism and tourism development for the city of Tahlequah, through its agent, the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce.”
With a separate board now in place to oversee tourism development, the city should stop using the chamber as its “agent” for disbursing hotel-motel tax funds. The Press has not always held that position; we opined against it in 2006. But that was before this year’s embezzlement scandal erupted.
City voters created the hotel-motel tax in 1987, and 27 years and literally hundreds of recorded ATM withdrawals later, criminal and financial investigators are trying to determine whether chamber money was embezzled – and if so, whether the alleged misuse perhaps cut into those hotel-motel tax funds. On top of that, questions remain about the possible nonpayment of chamber payroll taxes and unemployment insurance.
The chamber board is likely to balk at any suggestion of wresting the Tourism Council from its control, and members of the tourism board may cringe at the thought of standing up to their counterparts and asking for independence. After all, most of the chamber board members are influential in this community. But prominence doesn’t translate into financial and business savvy. The chamber board was asleep at the wheel when someone absconded with thousands of dollars in funds. Most of those board members are still in place, and none have yet admitted publicly to any culpability.
City councilors should take the initiative to stop contracting with the chamber for disbursement of hotel-motel tax funds, and opt instead to work with a reorganized Tourism Council out of range of the chamber’s decision-making grasp. And if city officials aren’t strong enough to contract with the tourism board rather than the chamber, maybe it’s time to take the issue back to a vote of the people.
Although the chamber and Tourism Council will always be linked, cutting the proverbial cord that binds them would allow both entities to get their houses in order and make fresh starts, free from the co-mingling of finances and the reality that tax funds continue to help support chamber operations. It’s high time each board focused on its established purpose, even if those roles will overlap from time to time.
It could be months before investigators reveal their analysis of the embezzlement allegations, but one thing is already clear: Chamber board directors had their chance to act as good stewards – according to the board’s membership roster, no less than 16 of them in any given year. They have perpetually dropped the ball, and in doing so, made fools of the rest of us.