EDITORIAL: Fiscal court needs to devise tourism fix

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By The Staff

Tourism is broken in Anderson County and now it’s up to the fiscal court to fix it.

Oh, there’s blame-a-plenty to go around for the way the county-created tourism commission has been operating for the past several years.

First and foremost the blame falls to the fiscal court and judge-executive, each of which has turned a remarkably blind eye to an agency spending your tax dollars that willfully and admittedly has operated well outside the boundaries of the law.

But that in no way gives absolution to the tourism chairman and director. They were the ones knowingly conducting meetings without a majority of members present. They were the ones spending money as they saw fit without legally required votes of the tourism commission. They were the ones who shunned mandatory annual audits because, they claim, the commission couldn’t afford them.

As for the chairman, he’s the one who signed off on a $10,000 annual services contract with an accounting business owned by the director, despite not having a legal vote of the commission to do so or even soliciting bids for that service.

And if that weren’t enough, he’s the one who just before Christmas in 2008 made an apparent unilateral decision to give the director a $500 bonus, which was neither outlined in her contract nor approved by the commission. In fact, that $500 check was the only one written in 2008 that contained only the chairman’s signature and the only one for which there was no corresponding invoice describing what the payment was for.

If all the above weren’t troubling enough, it’s a sad commentary on how well government operates in Anderson County that it takes a three-hour examination of tourism’s books by The Anderson News to uncover these outrages.

Privately, plenty of people had inklings that something was amiss with tourism, which had become something of a governmental laughingstock because months would go by without it having enough members show up for an official meeting.

Accordingly, The Anderson News started asking some questions, including of magistrates who freely admitted they had never seen an annual budget from tourism.

It was then that we filed an open records request to see the past several budgets, along with meeting minutes and expense reports. We looked at those documents last Friday, and above is a sampling of what we found.

None of this is in dispute. When interviewed, the chairman was remarkably candid and freely admitted that plenty has gone wrong in recent years. Oh, he predictably blames the judge-executive and claims that his repeated attempts for help have largely been ignored.

Perhaps, but as chairman, he owed it to himself and the owners of the Best Western, who fork over to tourism 3 percent on every room they rent, to at least once plead his case before the fiscal court and make public his concerns.

Now it’s time for the fiscal court to fix this problem and create a tourism commission that will eventually regain public trust and attract needed visitors to Anderson County.

Fortunately, the county attorney hasn’t turned a blind eye to this problem. Following our open records request, she has taken a proactive approach and is scheduled to offer suggestions at 10 a.m. Wednesday during a special called meeting of the fiscal court.

We’re not sure what those suggestions will be, but let’s hope the first move is to temporarily suspend the tourism commission’s operations until a full-blown audit is conducted through the state auditor’s office, the results of which won’t likely be pretty.

Second, the fiscal court should request a meeting with city officials and attempt to bring tourism under the county and city’s umbrella in terms of appointments, oversight and responsibility.

Third, the resolution that created tourism needs to be shredded and new one written. That resolution should clearly spell out the city and county’s responsibilities, and mandate strict oversight of how meetings are conducted and money is spent.

Let’s face it. Tourism, like economic development, is a vital need for Anderson County and it’s imperative that we stop allowing our neighboring counties to lap us at every turn while we flounder in ineptitude.

Now is the time for the fiscal court, and hopefully the city, to seize this opportunity and create a tourism commission that can bring visitors to Anderson County and properly conduct itself and its meetings.

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