A question of how public should public information be colored the conversation at the Turlock City Council meeting Tuesday night. Members were divided over whether the winding down of the Turlock Chamber of Commerce’s contract to operate the Convention and Visitors Bureau was worthy of the public meeting just yet.
In February the Turlock Chamber of Commerce submitted a letter of resignation to terminate services to operate the CVB, an organization that is taxed with bringing tourists to town. The CVB is funded by Transit Occupancy Tax dollars, or money generated when visitors stay in local hotels. On April 24, the Turlock City Council agenda was amended to include an update on the winding down of the contract that will officially end on May 3.
Administrative Services Director Kellie Jacobs-Hunter provided that update Tuesday evening detailing the steps taken over the past month as the City performed an internal audit of the Chamber’s implementation of CVB services over the past five years. On April 24, City Attorney Phaedra Norton sent Chamber President and CEO Sharon Silva a letter that states that 43 expenditures in the past five years did not qualify as permissible.
“Based upon the City’s preliminary determination, it appears that the total amount due to the City from 2009 through 2014, including potentially unallowable expenditures/journal entries/ transactions is $241,297.07,” stated Norton's letter.
Audit documents provided by the City show that CVB dollars were spent on Chamber items including $10,000 “for various Chamber events funding” in 2013, $1,353 for “Best of Turlock stuff” in 2010, and $7,000 for “map to pay for scholarships” in 2009.
On Tuesday, Council Member Bill DeHart stressed that the expenditures in question detailed are merely alleged as unallowable at this time so the City should move forward with “utmost care and discretion.”
“I want to make sure that we re-emphasize the fact that we’re talking about perceived non-authorized so on and so forth. We’re not talking about violations, or criminal activity, we’re talking about an ongoing process… where we’re concerned about what we see or perhaps what we don’t see,” said DeHart.
Jacobs-Hunt is more preoccupied with what she is not seeing at the moment as she said more financial information from the Chamber regarding the questionable expenses will help the City determine precisely for what the Chamber is fiscally responsible.
“We’ve only been able to review what we’ve been given, so we also need more opportunity to meet with the Chamber,” said Jacobs-Hunt. “We need clarification, too.”
The two agencies will be meeting on Friday to further discuss the contract.
Council Member Steven Nascimento echoed a similar sentiment as DeHart and said he was under the impression that the item would only be discussed once a final determination had been made.
“In the meantime, I think we harmed the reputation of an organization that represents a lot of the businesses in our community, who has been a great partner to us in our community,” said Nascimento. “I feel like the timing of this, without giving the Chamber and the CVB the chance to come back with the inclination to refute those potentially unallowable expenditures, was a bit unfair to them.”
According to Council member Amy Bublak, however, it would have been illegal to discuss the issue outside of the public meeting.
“The reason it’s here tonight and in public is because three of you weren’t involved in this and to be fair for the Brown Act we needed to do this,” said Bublak, who was appointed as a council representative during the review process. “This isn’t about a reputation of anybody. This is just about expenditures and understanding what we’re going to do when we now take on tourism for Turlock.”
Nascimento reiterated that the council members could have reviewed the information on their own because the documents are public record. By discussing the winding down of the contract prior to the final determination he said, “all it does is sort of muddy the waters.”
“I think we have a very good relationship with our business community and I’d like to see that continue and I don’t think this is a productive way to continue that relationship,” said Nascimento.
He did, however, voice that any money owed needs to be collected but, “I think the process in which we do that says a lot about this council.”
Mayor Gary Soiseth responded to what he called Nascimento’s “perceived lack of transparency with the process” with the remark that: “As public officials we’re doing our job.”
At the closure of the meeting Bublak requested that once the audit is complete the City put an action item on the soonest available agenda.