Visit Duluth board members resign over conflict of interest concernsA city task force identified problems with Visit Duluth including conflicts of interest among board members, lack of financial controls and an oversized board.
Scrutiny of Visit Duluth by a city task force caused two members of the board to resign, the head of Visit Duluth’s board announced during a meeting on Wednesday.
The board also voted to adopt a change recommended by the Tourism Tax Task Force that will require the head of Visit Duluth to have checks co-signed by a board member.
But Visit Duluth will fight other changes recommended by the City Council-appointed task force, including having an outside consultant review Visit Duluth’s operations and a requirement that the tourism bureau’s funding be renewed for only one year. Other groups were recommended for three-year funding.
The City Council could vote Monday on whether to support those recommendations.
Visit Duluth board chair Tony Bronson said during Wednesday’s meeting that having a one-year budget could affect future events such as the Tall Ships Festival.
“Having one-year contracts doesn’t allow for that,” he said.
Visit Duluth president and CEO Terry Mattson said spending what could be $50,000 to $100,000 to hire an outside consultant would be unnecessary as the group has had a yearly audit for “three decades.”
The task force recommended the one-year budget and outside consultant along with several other changes in response to what it deemed were problems with Visit Duluth’s operations. Among those problems cited in a report and by task force members were conflicts of interest among board members, lack of financial controls and an oversized board.
Bronson announced that Renee Mattson and Sean Dean tendered their resignations to the board. Mattson is the director of Spirit Mountain and the wife of Terry Mattson. A representative of Spirit Mountain is required to sit on the Visit Duluth board under the group’s bylaws.
“There has been no bigger advocate for Spirit Mountain than Renee,” Bronson said. “We’ll miss that.”
Dean, co-owner of Citon Computers, resigned due to what Bronson called a misperception of a conflict of interest on the board.
“He had heard of it from people on the street,” Bronson said. “He felt like he had to take care of business first.”
Bronson said even before the task force came out with its recommendations that they were moving toward having a smaller board, but also wanted to make sure that interests of the community were represented.
“We are under the microscope, but I don’t feel like we need to make any rash decisions,” he said.
Other board members were critical of the task force and its recommendations, saying they felt the group unfairly scrutinized Visit Duluth and did not put the same microscope to others that get tourism tax dollars.
“I don’t understand the purpose of trying to regulate us when we’re doing everything right,” said Tess Dandra, who works in Workforce and Community Development for Lake Superior College. “I would like to know the process” in selecting the task force.
Karen Pionk, general manager for the Sheraton Duluth, as well as a task force member and Visit Duluth board member, countered that the focus should be on how to address the recommendations.
“We need to look at what we can take care of in the here and now,” she said.
Bronson said a group of food-beverage and hotel-lodging stakeholders have asked attorney Bill Burns to present their concerns with the task force recommendations, including the one-year contract and hiring the outside consultant, to the City Council.
Council president Sharla Gardner, who appointed the task force, said those recommendations were made due to the problems identified by the group.
“They felt the issues of concern that came up in regards to financial protections, one person writing checks and size of the board and that they haven’t had any organizational evaluation to our knowledge ever,” she said. “And because Duluth is such a small community, it would be good from someone from the outside doing that.”