The TDA decides how to spend $600,000 collected annually from tourists in the form of a 3 percent tax on overnight lodging. The money is pumped back into tourism promotion, but the best way to spend it has been a source of contention at best and a mudslinging tug-of-war at worst since the tax was first established in the 1980s.
The latest controversy involving the TDA has centered around Wade Reece, the owner of the Quality Inn in Maggie Valley, who was appointed to the board by county commissioner a year ago.
Reece has been a long-time critic of the TDA and immediately went to work questioning everything about the tourism entity — not only how tourism dollars are spent but also the job performance of TDA director Scotty Ellis.
After a year of this criticism, some members of the TDA retaliated by trying to kick Reece off the board. The TDA voted 5 to 3 last month to have Reece removed.
The decision rests with the county commissioners who make the TDA appointments. The commissioners discussed what to do at their meeting last week (March 20).
The top complaint by the five TDA members was that Reece intimidated them by raising his voice and making insulting comments. They also complained Reece obstructed the board when he did not get his way.
“We have been interrupted in our regular and special meetings so badly we have not been able to work on the promotion of tourism. We have been stymied and held back,” Joetta Rinehart, a TDA board member with the Lake Junaluska Assembly, told commissioners. “At one meeting his conduct was on the verge of violence that we had to literally stop the meeting.”
Rinehart said the board has been exposed to uncouth language, both at meetings and in phone calls from Reece.
Reece claims the board members who want him removed want to silence him simply because they do not like what he has to say.
“Obviously, there has been an attempt by some of the TDA board members to take the focus off the issues and put the focus on me personally,” Reece wrote in a letter to the county commissioners.
Commissioner Mary Ann Enloe was the first to speak on the issue. She said removing Reece would create a slippery slope. The county appoints people to all kinds of boards charged with overseeing various sectors of the county: the hospital board, planning board, library board, economic development board, recreation board and health department board to name a few.
“For us to start removing appointees from their seats in the middle of their term would seriously dilute the appointment process. I would consider that option only as a last resort,” Enloe said.
Enloe said anyone serving on a board should expect to face tough questions including from within their own ranks.
“It goes with the territory. There’s nothing wrong with asking questions. But there is a civil way to do it,” Enloe added.
Enloe recommended the board go through professional mediation counseling to “learn to disagree agreeably.” Rinehart questioned whether Reece would be willing to go to mediation, however.
Commissioner Larry Ammons agreed that asking tough questions should be applauded, but one member can’t obstruct the rest of the board when things don’t go the way he wants.
“It’s part of our democratic process to have participatory government. When we have one citizen that is disrupting our system, it seems it is time for that person to be taken out of the equation and not be permitted to be disruptive,” Ammons said. “In corporate structure, people even like Warren Buffet resigned when they couldn’t move the corporation in the direction they wanted it.”
Reece’s style is hammering home points by repetition, however, bringing up the same topic for discussion every meeting regardless of how it went over the previous meeting.
“For the past year I have stated at every meeting ‘This board has got to become accountable for the TDA money and how it is spent,’” Reece wrote in his letter to commissioners.
Rinehart said Reece’s constant criticizing and complaining were wearing down the board and creating tension at meetings.
“Nobody has any enthusiasm for what we are doing because we always have to be on our toes to keep from getting knocked down,” Rinehart said.
Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick said he was concerned that some TDA members were being intimidated by Reece.
“Are such threats made and such accusations made that you feel like you might be harmed?” Kirkpatrick asked Rinehart.
“Yes, it is just a very uncomfortable feeling,” Rinehart said.
Kirkpatrick said that bothered him.
“I don’t want you to be in a situation where you feel threatened to go attend a meeting of a board we have appointed you to,” Kirkpatrick said.
Commissioner Kevin Ensley said he was disturbed by the lack of manners TDA members were accusing Reece of.
“I wouldn’t tolerate bad language either. If my wife was at one of those meetings — I’m thinking of it in that aspect — that would bother me a lot,” Ensley said. “We live in a country where we don’t need to tolerate any kind of outbursts that lead to violence.”
James Carver, a TDA member from Maggie Valley who voted against kicking Reece off the board, was in the audience and came forward to tell commissioners he has not felt threatened.
“I can assure this board nobody will harm this lady,” Carver said, putting his arm around Rinehart at the podium.
Commissioner Chairman Mark Swagner said the commissioners could not kick Reece off the TDA based solely on the allegations of the other board members, but would need to conduct an independent inquiry to determine whether cause existed to remove Reece.
But more problematic is the possibility that Reece could sue the county commissioners if they remove him. There is no state precedent for removing an appointed board member.
“I can’t say it is clear-cut one way or the other that you have the authority or don’t have it,” County Attorney Chip Killian told commissioners.
There is one legal option, however: disband the entire TDA board and put in back together again. Commissioners could reappoint everyone but Reece, or reappoint all new members. Reece advocated that solution in his letter to commissioners.
“I would ask the Haywood County Board of Commissioners to remove the entire board of directors and appoint a totally new board,” Reece wrote.
Commissioners did not jump at the idea, however.
“We do have the authority to disband the entire TDA and send them all home,” Enloe said. “I do not even consider that an option.”
Ultimately, the commissioners proposed videotaping the TDA meetings and airing them on the government access channel. The idea was intended as a compromise to removing Reece in hopes it would promote more cordial behavior.
“A person on video could remain much more civil than a person not on video might be,” Kirkpatrick said. Rinehart agreed the taping tactic might work.
Ammons shook his head at the entire scenario.
“It is embarrassing we even have to be in a meeting to discuss this frankly,” Ammons said.
There is a one-time $500 start-up fee for the taping, which will come out of TDA coffers. After that, videotaping will cost $157 an hour. The TDA will be charged one hour for set-up and take down before and after each meeting in addition to the length of the meeting. Much of the TDA work is done in committees, which will not be taped, however.