Those barred from meeting angry at Huntersville mayor
HUNTERSVILLE – N.C. Rep. Beverly Earle came to Huntersville Town Hall Monday, April 11, and met behind closed doors with the mayors and town managers of Huntersville and Davidson, leaders of the Lake Norman chamber and Visit Lake Norman and two hoteliers to try to sort out a public spat about funding for Visit Lake Norman.
The meeting didn’t do much to resolve the differences.
But when two Huntersville commissioners and other hotel and restaurant representatives asked to join the meeting – and were barred – the result was another round of accusations that Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain was trying to speak for the town before bothering to speak with the elected officials who will actually decide.
Earle also invited Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte and Town Manager Anthony Roberts to the closed session, but they didn’t attend.
“For the town mayor to host a meeting – even if Beverly Earle asked for it and said she wanted these people invited – reeks of being underhanded,” Huntersville Commissioner Charles Jeter said later Monday afternoon. Swain could have avoided problems, Jeter said, by emailing commissioners in advance, offering to report back to them immediately afterward.
“The simple fact is they had a secret meeting,” Jeter said. “They said they didn’t want to stir up more public controversy, but by having a clandestine meeting, they just made this front-page news again.”
At the request of the Greater Charlotte Hospitality & Tourism Alliance, Earle has filed a bill that would mandate the percentage of tourism taxes returned to three towns that goes to Visit Lake Norman.
After the meeting, Earle said she won’t withdraw her bill, as Swain and Woods asked Monday. But neither will she try to move it forward while giving leaders of the three towns time to work out an interlocal agreement continuing the current level of support for Visit Lake Norman. An initial deadline for getting action on her bill comes some time in May, Earle said.
Swain and Woods pledged their towns would renew an interlocal agreement promising that same level of support, Earle said. That’s the first public hint of where Davidson might stand on the issue. The Cornelius town board already pledged the same support.
By email afterwards, Woods said, “The meeting was established at (Earle’s) request so she could more fully understand our region’s needs. We are fully supportive of travel/tourism efforts … In addition, we feel a very positive stewardship responsibility for the effective use of these tax revenues. Travel and tourism is a local issue to be managed locally with accountability and true effectiveness.”
Not good enough, said hotelier Vinay Patel, who sits on the Visit Lake Norman board. They want Earle and her fellow lawmakers to take the choice away from the town boards and the political shifts, and Patel encouraged other tourism industry officials at town hall Monday to lobby their lawmakers to approve the bill.
“If you don’t oppose the (percentage of tourism tax), why would you oppose something that codifies that?” Patel asked. An interlocal agreement between the towns doesn’t prevent a town board from reneging if three members on the board – a majority – “decide they don’t like it.”
Other local convention and visitors bureaus get all the accommodations and prepared-food tax collected in their areas, Patel and Bill Russell, president of the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce, said. Mooresville gets 100 percent, and Charlotte gets 100 percent of the taxes collected in Charlotte and half of the tourism taxes collected in the rest of the county, Russell said.
In 2001, Russell also pointed out, Visit Lake Norman was getting 50 percent of the tourism taxes going to the towns, and the percentage has declined since then.
“For 10 years, the travel-and-tourism funding has been a political issue,” Russell said. “Every town board talks about whether we are going to fully fund Visit Lake Norman. … In most communities, you don’t have control of it anyway. … Let’s remove this repeated process of pitting the towns and the chamber and businesses against each other.”
Jeter said he heard about Monday’s meeting at 1:43 p.m., apparently shortly after it started, from Huntersville Commissioner Ken Lucas, who sits on the Visit Lake Norman board but also was barred from the meeting.
At 3:25 p.m. Monday, Swain sent an email to Huntersville commissioners saying Earle contacted her on Thursday, April 7, asking “that I send email invites to certain individuals to get together today so that she could understand the driving force behind the request for legislation.
“Unfortunately, a number of people who were not on her invite list were told to come, and she requested they be asked to leave so that she could lead a smaller discussion.
“There were no decisions made at this discussion.”
Jeter responded 20 minutes later. “Unfortunately she (Earle) met with a group of people with no say in what the town’s position is or will be,” he said, referring to the fact that mayors don’t vote unless to break a tie.
“To schedule a meeting … with the state representative about potential pending legislation without letting the town board know ahead time is very frustrating. Rep. Earle spent her time meeting with individuals about a very sensitive issue when not one person in that room has any say on what the towns will or will not do.”
Though he’s angry at what he called Swain’s “cloak and dagger” moves, Jeter said he doesn’t want state lawmakers adding more mandates on the towns, including use of the hotel-motel and prepared-food taxes. He counts four votes on the Huntersville board to renew an interlocal agreement promising 28 percent of the accommodations tax and 25 percent of the food tax to Visit Lake Norman.