Leaked Chamber email causes stir
by Staff Writer
An email sent last month from Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce President Bill Russell to a mentor and his father was apparently stolen from Russell’s computer and disseminated to local leaders and media outlets last week.
The email, which has been called “brutally honest,” “exaggerated” and “unnecessary,” by local officials, shows, his critics say, Russell as an aggressor and puppet master in the recent debates between north Mecklenburg County leaders and the publicly funded Visit Lake Norman tourism agency.
In a follow-up email on Friday, Sept. 23, the day after the stolen email was sent out, Russell said his comments were taken out of context from a larger conversation between him and former political advisor and mentor Charlie Madsen.
Russell has said he intends to ask the Cornelius police to investigate email theft. As of Wednesday, Sept. 28, police said Russell had not contacted them.
A long, heated battle
The email, which is brash and unfiltered, is the kind of thing one would expect between close friends. But it’s hard to explain without knowing the nuance of the debate between the towns and Visit Lake Norman. The dispute started in January when the mayors of Huntersville, Cornelius and Davidson decided there should be more oversight of taxpayer money flowing to the 10-year-old convention and visitors’ bureau.
They created the Mayors’ Tourism Task Force, a group that has yet to meet. The goal was clear though. They wanted to renegotiate the interlocal agreement that required the towns to give Visit Lake Norman 28 percent of the hotel-motel tax collected from overnight guests, and 25 percent of the prepared-food tax collected at local restaurants.
Fearing they’d lose the tax money used to promote local events and attractions, local hoteliers and restaurateurs took the fight to Raleigh this spring. There, they captured the support of House Speaker Thom Tillis, a Cornelius resident, and both houses of the legislature unanimously approved a law guaranteeing the money to Visit Lake Norman.
But the debate remained heated, as the towns refused to fork over the cash – a timeline was not explicitly mentioned in the new law – and the Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce claimed veto power over Visit Lake Norman.
At that point, on Aug. 10, Russell wrote in an email to Madsen: “We’ve battled the towns all summer and wrestled away taxes from them in the legislature. We took both houses unanimously and they (the towns) are still livid they didn’t even get a vote of opposition after they called, emailed, wrote letters and paid visits to Raleigh.
“They thought they could make another run by gaining seats on the tourism board and then discovered we put into the (Convention and Visitors’ Bureau’s) Articles of Incorporation that we control changes to the CVB’s bylaws. Which means they have to come to us (the Chamber) for any changes.”
“While my board is elected, I control who goes on the short list of nominees to the board. So, while I do not elect the board, the board comes through me…. Sound familiar?
“If the towns thought they got their ass handed to them in Raleigh, it will be fun watching what happens when they try to get control from my board.”
Despite Russell’s bragging, on Monday, Sept. 26, the chamber board compromised and gave up control of the tourism agency. In a new interlocal agreement, the towns got all that they wanted – half of the members on the newly enlarged 18-member board will be appointed by the towns and they get some stronger control over the purse strings. In exchange, Visit Lake Norman gets its money on schedule.
Although the issue is now seemingly concluded, the debates have left open wounds between the warring factions. Russell’s email has stoked heated discussions again on both sides. Some claiming unfair play in how the email was disseminated and dissected out of a real point of reference. Others see it as proof of Russell’s handiwork.
Russell responds quickly
On Friday, after realizing the original email had somehow been forwarded to several people, Russell sent a follow-up email, saying in part:
“The email I sent Charlie (Madsen) was sent after a lengthy conversation on the phone catching up on an issue I was dealing with at the time and reminiscing of our past experiences together. If you examined the email without reference to our phone call or our past experiences together, it takes on the negative tone you perceived. I would, just on the face of the email itself, draw the same conclusions.
“Our hospitality and business community was engaged in a very intense confrontation with local elected leaders this past spring and summer, which has now been resolved. It is not unlike the ongoing struggle many communities across this country are facing. I certainly conveyed a sentiment and language to my past political advisor I would never share in a public forum. Some of that was venting to someone whom I trust, much like you might share something with your close family member you would never discuss in public.”
In a phone conversation Thursday, Madsen told the Herald Weekly he thought the email was “a little bit of chest thumping, but was mostly being taken out of context.”
“Bill and I go way back,” Madsen said. “I was his political advisor when he ran for (national) president of the Jaycees (Junior Chamber of Commerce). That’s a big deal, so there was a lot of rough play in those elections … I think a lot of what you’re seeing in Bill’s email is just a player going to his political mentor saying ‘Hey, look at what I did, coach, just like the old days.’ I don’t think this is much more than Bill referencing back to those old days when we campaigned in such a tough environment. I don’t think he meant to sound like a tough guy or as some manipulator. I think that was a bit of a show for an old friend. Bill’s a very transparent guy.”
Madsen said he was unfamiliar with the debate between the towns and Visit Lake Norman, but added, “In Bill’s position, you’re going to get into some scrapes with political leaders. That’s part of the job sometimes.”
But more than that, the email seems to show Russell’s first-hand involvement. On multiple occasions, Russell told the Herald Weekly he did not have any hand in negotiations and was getting his information from Visit Lake Norman Executive Director Sally Ashworth.
On Monday, during the Chamber of Commerce board meeting, Russell said he would have written differently had the email been meant for public consumption. But he stuck to his guns, claiming victory in the debates.
“I am not ashamed of that,” Russell said, according to CorneliusNews.net. “These three heads of our towns are some of the most articulate and influential people, and we won.”
Leaders respond in kind
Russell’s email has become something of an underground sensation. Passed around quickly by business leaders and elected officials alike. Everyone seemed to have an opinion on the matter – some angry, some ambivalent – but many seemed to hope this would be the last salvo in a fight that dragged on for 10 months.
“We’ve wasted good time bickering,” former chamber Chairman John Hettwer said. “We just came through – the chamber and the community – a very divisive situation, and we can debate all day long who was right or wrong. But frankly, if we don’t get past it, we’re wasting more of the community’s time and resources again.”
The email released to town board members and reporters was a personal one meant only for Russell’s father and a long-time confidant, he said.
“You know why Bill gets so much grief?” Hettwer asked. “Because he’s so effective. He’s out there standing on a hill with a bull’s-eye on his back.”
Russell was right to advocate for local hoteliers and restaurants against the towns and in the legislature because they’re members of the chamber, Hettwer said. But he acknowledges Russell was somewhat “disingenuous” by telling reporters repeatedly that the chamber was not part of the Visit Lake Norman dispute.
“The chamber has a responsibility to support its members when requested, and in this case, it was the hoteliers and restaurants that were requesting assistance. It’s no secret that the chamber and Visit Lake Norman have always worked closely together, and that’s a good thing and maximizes the community resources. If you want to talk about being ‘disingenuous,’ that was happening on the other side as well.”
Huntersville Commissioner Charles Jeter had a similar tact but disagreed a bit about how the situation played out.
“I’m a bit angry over the moral outrage about this email,” he said. “We’re talking about a personal email. I’m sure if you took a personal email from any commissioner in any of towns, you would find some things they wish wouldn’t become public. All of us have sent an email we wouldn’t be proud to see passed around in public.”
But adding to Russell’s comment about getting their rear ends “handed to them in Raleigh” Jeter noted: “Yeah, we did. We got beat up in Raleigh, but we had a card up our sleeves. We knew right away the law didn’t say anything about when we had to pay Visit Lake Norman. We can play with the best of them, and Russell just got outplayed in the end.”
Lake Norman Chamber Board Chairman Robert Reed backs Russell, saying he thought the email was taken out of context and shouldn’t have been seen by the public. When asked about Russell’s comment about having “control” over his board, Reed would only say:
“Mr. Russell does not control the chamber board, believe me. I’ve had my share of disagreements with Mr. Russell, and there are no puppets on this board,” he said.
The best proof is the difference in outcome, Reed said.
In his email, Russell predicted “my (chamber) board” would never relinquish its control of Visit Lake Norman. In the end, Reed pointed out the chamber did relinquish control of the tourism agency’s bylaws, board of directors and executive committee.
Huntersville Mayor Jill Swain and Cornelius Mayor Jeff Tarte also expressed concern about how the email was forwarded and said they expect the towns will rebuild their relationship with Visit Lake Norman and the chamber.
“We’re both working toward the same goals,” Swain said. “There is no reason for us to have such animosity or anger. We all want the same things.”
Aside from the upheaval caused by the email, most people contacted seemed to be upset first with how it was released. Russell said he did not send the email to anyone but Madsen and his father. Madsen said he did not forward the email to anyone.
Most likely, the email was either hacked from Russell’s computer or forwarded from it without his knowledge, several people said.
Muddying the waters further is a series of fraudulent email addresses that were originally used to pass the email around. The email address used to disseminate the email does not appear anywhere else in an Internet search. Emails sent to that address were not returned.
In the weeks before this email was sent out, the Herald Weekly received several letters to the editor criticizing Russell that, after some investigation, turned out to be fraudulent. The Herald Weekly did not publish those letters. Some of the email addresses used to pen those letters also are part of the chain used to forward Russell’s August email to the Herald and others.
Russell and several board members said they intend to investigate the leak further.
Bill Russell email
– Managing Editor Frank DeLoache contributed in the reporting
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