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CorneliusNews.net: Lake Norman Chamber Chief's Email Casts A Shadow Over Visit Lake Norman Agreement

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A nine-month tug-of-war between north Mecklenburg town officials and the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce appears to be over, with the final approval Monday of a new agreement governing the towns' involvement in the local tourism promotion agency Visit Lake Norman. But bad blood remains between the two sides, and matters worsened over the weekend when an inflammatory email by chamber chief executive Bill Russell was leaked and then circulated among local officials, citizens and reporters. VLN AND TOWNS REACH AN AGREEMENT On Monday, the board directors of Visit Lake Norman gave its blessing to an interlocal agreement, or contract, with the towns of Huntersville, Davidson and Cornelius that spells out how the towns will fund the agency and what role they will have overseeing it. State legislation passed in June mandates that the towns allocate 28 percent of local hotel occupancy tax revenues and 25 percent of prepared food and beverage taxes to Visit Lake Norman (VLN). Monday's agreement establishes a funding mechanism and a quarterly payment schedule. It also gives the towns more representation on the VLN board, effective Jan. 1, 2012. For now, the agency's 16-member board will continue to operate as it has been. Until now, the chamber has had the power to approve or deny changes to Visit Lake Norman's charter, under the group's articles of incorporation. The interlocal agreement strips the chamber of that power. On Jan. 1, the agency's board will shift to 18 members, nine of whom will be appointed by the towns. Of the nine, each town will appoint one person from the restaurant/attractions sector and two at-large members. Of the two at-large members, only one may be a town official, and none may be a town staff member. The other nine VLN board members will be appointed by a VLN nominating committee, and must include at least one person from the hospitality sector from each town. And lastly, the towns must have equal representation on the VLN executive committee, according to the agreement. In addition to the increased board representation, the towns fought for more transparency in how the VLN board spends the tax money it receives from the towns. Under the new agreement, Visit Lake Norman will provide each town with an annual, audited financial statement, and the towns likewise will provide audited statements to VLN. Click here to view the final version of the interlocal agreement (PDF) TROUBLING EMAIL While Monday's approval of the interlocal agreement by Visit Lake Norman's board ended the formal legal battle between with the towns, the feud is not entirely over. Some local officials now are unhappy over a controversial private email written by Mr. Russell that became public last week. Mr. Russell sent the message Aug. 10 to his father and to Charlie Madsen, a friend he described as a "trusted adviser." [Mr. Russell said Mr. Madsen had been his campaign manager when he ran for offices in the South Carolina and national Jaycees.] In it, he referenced the state legislation passed in June for VLN funding from the towns. The bill was unusual because it was pushed through by N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Cornelius, who rarely gets involved in interlocal agreements or town management decisions. In the email, Mr. Russell took credit for a political victory. Russell He tells Madsen the chamber "wrestled away taxes" from the towns through the state legislation. He also celebrates the chamber's control over Visit Lake Norman's charter, and boasts that he controls who gets onto the Lake Norman Chamber's board. And in gloating, off-color language, he then tells his friend: "It will be fun watching what happens when they (the towns) try to get control from my Board." The Aug. 10 email was obtained by a third party and forwarded last week to town leaders and various media outlets, causing yet another dust-up between the chamber and the towns. In a second email Friday, Sept. 23, (sent to chamber and local officials and reporters) and again at Monday's Lake Norman Chamber board meeting, Mr. Russell admitted to writing the first email, but said it was being taken out of context. However, he was unapologetic for his delight at the "win" over the town leaders. "I am not ashamed of that," Mr. Russell told chamber board members Monday. "These three heads of our towns are some of the most articulate and influential people, and we won." He acknowledged that the email was intended for a private audience, and he would not have used the same tone if he had been writing for the public record as a representative of the chamber. NEXT STEPS One of the questions in the air at Monday's meeting was whether the chamber board might take action against Mr. Russell for his remarks. During the meeting, Davidson Mayor John Woods and Huntersville Commissioner Ron Julian, who both sit on the chamber board, pressed chamber leaders on what steps they might take in response to Mr. Russell's email. "At this moment we are going to continue to move forward with chamber business," looking out for the best interest of the area's businesses, Lake Norman Chamber Chairman Robert Reid replied during the meeting. Members of the chamber's executive board said the email was released only days ago, and a one-hour board discussion wasn't sufficient to decide what the next move should be. They wanted to hear from the rest of the board members before making any decisions, Mr. Reid said. Mr. Reid said he's also concerned how the email became public. Mr. Russell believes his email account may have been hacked or compromised somehow, since neither of the original recipients forwarded the email to anyone, he said. "There is a secondary issue that does pertain to the security of the Chamber of Commerce," Mr. Reid said. And several chamber members echoed his concerns regarding a breach of internet security. The chamber plans to work with Cornelius Police Chief Bence Hoyle to learn more, Mr. Reid said. CONTENT COUNTS Local officials at Monday's meeting said it doesn't matter how the email got out. What Mr. Russell wrote, they said, has implications for the board, the towns and the community relationships that were strained during the VLN negotiations. Julian "It's not how the email got out but that it was even written," Mr. Julian said. "I was very disappointed at the language I saw in that email," he said, and expressed concern for "what this does for the chamber's reputation and what this does for the towns' reputations." "This is going to be another thorn in Huntersville's side, and in the chamber's side," he said. Mr. Julian said that a negative impression of the chamber-towns partnership could discourage potential residents and business owners from moving to the area, and he asked how the chamber plans to address the email issue. "There has been nothing done that is illegal or improper," Mr. Reid said. "The only thing illegal is the hacking." MENDING RELATIONSHIPS, REPUTATIONS Bensman "I don't think the email's the issue," said Jim Bensman, Cornelius Commissioner and chamber board member. "The issue is how is the chamber going to move forward?" "I would submit that the chamber's reputation has been severely damaged," Mr. Bensman said, and the chamber needs to "understand what collateral damage is out there and what we need to do to fix it." Mr. Bensman said community trust in the chamber has been weakened in recent months as questions have arisen about the relationship between Visit Lake Norman and the chamber. Those concerns include the cost of the tourism group's home on West Catawba Avenue in Cornelius. Visit Lake Norman leases space from the chamber for $60,000 a year. The lease "is something of an ethical issue that the board should discuss," Mr. Bensman said. "One thing that created a lot of this controversy is the lease." Mr. Bensman questioned whether a "good faith agreement" can exist between a landlord and a tenant, when the board of directors for the tenant is chosen by the landlord. He also cited the numerous negative exchanges and arguments over the past nine months between the chamber, VLN and town leaders, and waning membership to the chamber, and said the chamber needs to be discussing ways to repair its reputation. "In order to heal this, people in this room need to understand what happened and what collateral damage exists," Mr. Bensman said. "You just can't drop the history."