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Johns Creek seeks to hold tourism agency accountable to Sunshine Laws

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Johns Creek officials are drawing a line in the sand with the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

The organization has been accused of not abiding by Georgia Sunshine Laws which include open meetings and records laws.

The Johns Creek CVB’s compliance with these laws has been under scrutiny since early 2020.

At a Sept. 27 work session, council members decided to move forward with the JCCVB and begin discussions of a new amended agreement with the organization that calls for more transparency.

Prior to the work session Monday, Councilwoman Stephanie Endres went a step further calling to terminate the agreement entirely.

“They’ve been violating the Sunshine Act for two years now,” Endres said to the Herald.

The agency’s current agreement with the city expires in December but includes an auto-renewal clause if neither party takes action to terminate.

Earlier this year, the city amended its contracts with economic development entity Johns Creek Advantage and the Johns Creek Chamber of Commerce. Staff recommended the city update its agreement with the Convention and Visitors Bureau as well. The tourism organization has had only one agreement with the city since its inception in 2008. The agreement was amended once in 2017, but no other changes have been made.

Based on the format of updated agreements with the other entities, Assistant City Manager Kimberly Greer drafted a new contract for the JCCVB which was shared with the organization and returned with comments.

In a memo, Monica Gilroy, legal counsel for the JCCVB, called the proposed agreement “punitive” and “restrictive” and advised her client to decline it out of hand.

Among the new items the city proposed were an indemnity clause and a seven-day termination period for the contract.

At a Sept. 13 work session, council members directed Greer to abandon the proposed new agreement and to suggest amendments to the existing contract.

With the exception of a one-time grant of $16,500 from the state to help aide with pandemic-related tourism revenue loss, Greer said, the JCCVB receives all of its funding from tax dollars collected by the City of Johns Creek through its hotel/motel tax.

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Per Georgia Code, municipalities that collect a 7 percent hotel/motel tax, like Johns Creek, are required to provide 39.3 percent of the collected funds to tourism initiatives.

Additionally, Georgia law stipulates nonprofit entities that receive more than one-third of their funds from taxes must abide by the state’s Sunshine Laws.

These laws guided several of the council members’ proposed amendments to the agreement including Councilwoman Erin Elwood’s suggestion that members of the JCCVB be required to receive training on Sunshine Laws at least once every other year.

Elwood also suggested that members conduct all business using organization emails rather than personal accounts. She said she would not support automatically renewing the existing contract without including the Sunshine Law stipulations, and she raised the possibility of dissolving the agreement with the JCCVB and transferring their work in-house to the city’s economic development director.

Councilman John Bradberry said he was not in favor of terminating the relationship with the JCCVB yet. He also suggested that the organization hold their meetings at City Hall.

Other amendments in the most recent, proposed agreement include a requirement to provide audited annual financial reports within six months of the end of the previous fiscal year, a 60-day agreement termination period and an indemnity clause.

In a memo to members of the City Council, Endres cited incidents from Nov. 13, 2019 to June 23 of this year which she alleges prove conscious non-compliance with the Georgia Sunshine Laws by the JCCVB.

She also provided transcripts from a Jan. 25 council conversation with the organization wherein the JCCVB’s counsel claimed her client was not required to abide by Georgia Sunshine Laws, but that they did so anyway.

“This volunteer board has always followed the Sunshine Laws,” Gilroy said. She continued, however, to argue the laws do not apply because she said the tourism entity does not qualify as an agency of the city.

The city’s standing contract with the JCCVB stipulates that if the organization is not in compliance with city ordinances and state laws, it will be in breach of contract, and the termination of the agreement could be pushed through immediately.

At the Sept. 27 work session, Endres argued that the JCCVB has committed such a breach of contract.

“Are we a nation of laws or not?” Endres said.

Councilman Lenny Zaprowski argued against termination of the agreement, calling the JCCVB a “partner,” and saying that termination at this point would not be a respectful way to treat a partner.

Zaprowski continued, asking the city attorney if the need for the JCCVB to comply with Sunshine Laws was still “in question.”

City Attorney Ron Bennett clarified that the legal obligations of the organization as it relates to Georgia’s Sunshine Laws are no longer in question — they must comply.

The call for termination of the agreement was supported by Elwood and Councilman Chris Coughlin. Both council members agreed with Endres’ assertions regarding Georgia Sunshine Laws but also provided additional reasoning for why they did not want to continue to partner with the organization.

Elwood said moving the work of the tourism entity in-house would make more financial sense, again specifically referencing the city’s economic development director.

Coughlin countered Zaprowski’s argument for how the council should handle partner relationships.

“I agree [with Councilman Zaprowski] that we want to have goodwill towards partners,” Coughlin said. “But … partnerships are a two-way street.”

Gateway marker sparks more tension between CVB and council

Coughlin then cited a record of repeated offenses against the city and individual council members by certain members of the JCCVB.

“When you continue to berate, threaten and really push your partners to the edge, I wouldn’t say that’s a quality partnership,” Coughlin said.

Mayor Mike Bodker said he did not support termination leaving the City Council split 3-3 with Endres, Coughlin and Elwood favoring termination and Bodker, Zaprowski and Bradberry opposed.

Despite preferring termination, Elwood lent her vote to continuing contract negotiations, breaking the tie and creating consensus in a 4-2 split. Now, staff and the city attorney will meet with the JCCVB and their attorney to see if they can come to an agreement.

Reach Sydney Dangremond at 770-847-7404. Follow her on Twitter @syddang_.

(1) comment

Rhomeowners

One question for all of us, Johns Creekers.....: Is compliance negotiable? Don't we have rules and procedures to follow?!

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