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Commissioner steps into Tourism dispute

By BOB HANSEN - bhansen@newsexaminer.com

When a member of the Fayette County Board of Commissioners stepped into a dispute over who would be running the Fayette County Bicentennial in 2019, he hoped to end it. 

Commissioner Gary Naylor on Tuesday signed a letter to Donna Schroeder, former president of the county Tourism Board, stating that the current Tourism Board will be running the bicentennial celebration. Later that day, Naylor told the Connersville News-Examiner that he wrote the letter in hopes of ending a dispute between the former Tourism Board chairwoman and the current Tourism Board.

He acted on his own, without trying to speak for the other two county commissioners, he said.

It’s been an issue because Schroeder, who also is president of Historic Connersville Inc., had the Tourism Board name a bicentennial committee with herself as the chairwoman in November 2017. She also had the Tourism Board allocate $20,000 for the bicentennial and then wrote a check from the Tourism Board to another county account for the bicentennial. After the county auditor found out that the vote to allocate the money was conducted illegally, the auditor transferred the money back to the Tourism Board.

Schroeder had envisioned Historic Connersville and the Tourism Board running the county bicentennial. She approached the Fayette County Board of Commissioners for their approval of her plan in February 2017. The commissioners voted at that time to put the Tourism Board in charge of the bicentennial, without mentioning Historic Connersville.

That’s the action that Naylor’s letter confirms.

“Through the motion and vote of the commissioners February 21, 2017, it is the intent of the Board of Commissioners that the Bicentennial Celebration be headed up and chaired by the active Tourism Board,” Naylor’s letter begins. In concluding the letter four paragraphs later, he states, “... the current board will be the governing body for the celebration planning committee.”

All but one of the five-member Tourism Board has been replaced since Dec. 31, 2017. Connersville Mayor Harold Gordon did not renew the appointments of Schroeder and County Commissioner Leota King, who also had been named to the bicentennial committee. He notified Schroeder of his intention on Dec. 28, 2017. She sent an email to Tourism Board members the next day, asking them to vote by email on allocating the $20,000 for the bicentennial. Voting by email is illegal, which the Tourism Board did not know.

Gordon appointed Amy Hammons and Corinne Westerfield to replace Schroeder and King, starting Jan. 1. Hammons became chairwoman in February.

Early this year, two other members, Jennifer Badore and Amanda Stevens, resigned. The county replaced them by appointing Daniel Phelps and Lindsey Brooks. Tamra DeGroat is the only member of the former board still serving.

After Jane Downard, the county auditor, sent Naylor’s letter by email on Tuesday, Schroeder sent an email response, which then was answered by an email from Hammons.

Schroeder’s email read, in part, “This is a shame. I requested (and it’s on tape} that tourism and Historic Connersville partner. Gary Naylor made a motion that the tourism board be in charge. Although I thought at the time that I should ask for clarification, I didn’t.

“The tourism board that was in place began the planning and set up a committee. Mayor Gordon agreed that Historic Connersville was the correct choice to oversee the county’s celebration. The museum had agreed to act as the headquarters for the event ...

“Every other county that has celebrated its bicentennial has put the county historical society in charge. This is a slap in the face to everyone who has begun to plan, as well as to Historic Connersville, the county’s historical society.”

Hammons’ email response, addressed to Schroeder, states that Historic Connersville can be part of the county bicentennial but the organization will need to go through usual Tourism Board approval for receiving money. The email states, in part:

“No one is saying that HCI cannot plan anything.

“HCI can go on to plan activities as they see fit. We CAN all work together. It’s just the $20,000 check you had written that will not play a role in this event.

“You will need to complete a grant application and submit a budget for the planned event for funds to be designated upon a vote and approval.”

Hammons noted that Schroeder had retained some records of the Tourism Board after her term ended on Dec. 31, 2017. Hammons had asked for the records at more than one Tourism Board meeting, including in February, at a May 23 meeting that Schroeder attended and again on June 13. Schroeder did not turn over some financial records to the auditor’s office until Monday, June 18.

Downard has since completed a review of those documents. She listed 41 expenditures totaling $21,723.49 that had no supporting documentation submitted. Earlier this week, Schroeder was contacting vendors listed in the expense record, requesting copies of their records to verify the payments.