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The Council-CRVA fiasco


Tim Newman's contract as CEO of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority is scheduled to expire Thursday, June 30. By the time you read this, Newman could be looking for a new job; or CRVA could have renewed its deal with its controversial honcho; or the whole thing could still be up in the air. If Newman is history, it means City Council and Mayor Foxx did their jobs and let CRVA know they'd had enough of Newman's shenanigans. (City officials cannot fire the CRVA CEO, but they control a big chunk of the organization's budget.) If Newman is back in the saddle with his $300K+ salary, it means Council and mayor essentially caved. And if the whole thing is still dragging on, Council and mayor are probably getting ready to cave.

Whatever happens — and it could all be decided at the Council meeting before this column is published — the CRVA-Newman fiasco has been both an embarrassment to the city, and an instructive peek into how much influence Charlotte's professional boosters and wowsers have acquired with the Uptown money crowd.

I would be surprised if Newman's Council critics were able to muscle him out of the picture, despite his numerous ethical flops — especially when CRVA is in full-tilt "Prepare for the Democratic Convention" mode.

However the controversy is resolved, I will always remember how it slowly took on a familiar quality — like the feeling you get when watching an old movie you've seen before but can't remember the ending. First scene: Someone notices something fishy going on at CRVA. Second scene: Members of City Council don't like whatever has been found and say so publicly. Third scene: CRVA board members and a few corporate supporters put up a squawk, painting visions of a Tourist Armageddon if Council doesn't get off CRVA's butt. Scene Four: Council acts all mad and threatens to make an even bigger noise next time.

We were all at that movie's debut, when Council looked into poor attendance figures at the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Newman admitted he had exaggerated claims of potential revenues at the Hall because, well, that's just the way cities work when they're trying to land a big project: They lie through their teeth. It's too bad Newman didn't think to inform City Council members of that fact before they poured city money into the Hall. I thought Newman's irresponsibility in keeping City Council in the dark about his exaggerated predictions was reason enough for Council to pressure CRVA to can Newman. But no, in the end, nothing happened, perhaps because Council members didn't want to look like gullible dopes.

We saw the same scenes again when Newman, responding to an Observer investigation, admitted that he OK'd and delivered $100,000 in bonus money over four years to Ereka Crawford-Brim, who handles logistics for the annual CIAA basketball tournament. The money came from the CIAA, and thus was a clear violation of CRVA's ethics policy, which bars employees from accepting cash or gifts from outside the CRVA. Newman — who, as CEO, could reasonably be expected to value and enforce his organization's ethics policy — instead figured out a way to move the money through CRVA's coffers before handing it to Crawford-Brim. That made it OK, said Newman, because at that point the payments were "salary" and not gifts. Now that's what I call world-class weasel-ism. Remember, too, that Newman had already been called on the carpet for failing to tell CRVA's board that he was sleeping with a company employee. The woman has since left the organization.

At that point in the Newman/CRVA fiasco, we wondered online, "How does this guy keep his job?" A big part of the reason is that the Uptown business community lo-o-o-v-es them some Tim Newman. And no wonder since, as the Observer discovered in May, local big shots and public officials have received expensive "thank-you gifts" from CRVA for a while now — including $4,600 in New York Yankees tickets for Johnson & Wales University President Art Gallagher.

Citizens' and Council's outcries over Newman's lapses of judgment finally inspired the CRVA board to pull the tried-and-true Uptown Charlotte stalling tactic: They hired a consultant to write a report, or as I like to call it, the "moving stone wall." This particular report, CRVA announced, would be written by PricewaterhouseCoopers for a mere $25,000. It temporarily took pressure off CRVA, as intended, but then came the shocker: CRVA told City Council there was no written report from the consultant. Seems PricewaterhouseCoopers literally phoned in some vague facts and opinions, and CRVA board members scribbled out a couple of pages of "summation," the upshot of which was a suggestion that CRVA review its policies carefully (which, of course, was what the report was supposed to do). The non-report was, in effect, a big "Screw You" to Council and mayor from the tourist group. Council then responded in kind at its next meeting by withholding $10 million in CRVA funding until at least June 27, just before Newman's contract was up for renewal. That Council meeting was followed by CRVA's sudden, breathless announcement that the consultant would now deliver a written report — and at no extra cost! Such bargain hunters!

The CRVA controversy became an Uptown power struggle: on one side, CRVA and the business interests who love the group (and all those freebies and butt smooches) — on the other side, city government, or as they're also known, representatives of all the people of Charlotte and stewards of those people's money.

Charlotte, like other cities, needs a good tourist bureau, and CRVA has done good work in some areas. Too many times, though, CRVA management has acted like a gang of spoiled, eye-rolling brats, moaning because (gasp!) they have to justify how they spend tax money. Foxx and Council did the right thing by airing their problems with Newman's management style and ethical lapses. The city has to be sure that those in charge of big piles of tax dollars are doing so ethically. It's called accountability, and until the recent uproar, CRVA has shown little interest in it.

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