Opinions clash at tourism meeting

GREENFIELD — Emotions ran high at this week’s Hancock County Tourism Commission meeting when two members of the county council challenged the board’s decision to withhold funds from the nonprofit group overseeing the new fairgrounds project.

At Tuesday’s tourism commission meeting, county council members Bill Bolander and Jim Shelby argued the tourism commission should release about $32,000 collected through the county’s innkeeper’s tax, which the council increased last summer to raise money for the fairgrounds project.

Shelby asked the tourism commission to consider transferring the money to the Hancock County Exposition Complex Corp., the nonprofit overseeing the project, despite a resolution passed by the Hancock County Board of Commissioners last week asking the tourism commission to freeze the nonprofit’s funding until a more detailed proposal is presented.

After lengthy discussion, the tourism board members agreed to uphold the commissioners’ request but added they feel caught in the middle of a dispute between the county council and county commissioners.

The commissioners’ resolution is not legally binding, county attorney Ray Richardson told the Daily Reporter Wednesday.

Bolander and Shelby’s presentation to the board drew criticism from some members of the audience, who said the council members are overstepping their boundaries by trying to supersede a resolution aimed at protecting taxpayer dollars.

The seven-member nonprofit board has one representative from the council, Kent Fisk, and one representative from the commissioners, Tom Stevens; neither were present.

Bolander and Shelby said they attended the meeting to represent the council’s wishes and make sure the money the council had reserved for the fairgrounds project wouldn’t be spent elsewhere.

But a third county council member in the audience, John Jessup, said after the meeting that wasn’t a fair depiction.

Jessup said the council did not meet to discuss making a presentation to the tourism commission and found it unfair the pair spoke on behalf of the seven-member council.

Randy Harrison, an audience member and also a candidate for county commissioner, told the tourism commission during the meeting he believes Bolander and Shelby are advocating for irresponsible spending to further the fairgrounds project despite a lack of concrete plans.

Members of the tourism commission agreed they are legally bound to make sure organizations have plans with detailed expenses — which members of the nonprofit haven’t yet presented — before releasing funds.

Serving as the middle man among three groups that have not reached consensus on the direction of the project has become a burden, said Kelly McClarnon, a member of the tourism commission.

“We’ve been put in a position here,” McClarnon told Shelby and Bolander. “It’s bad enough we’re involved in getting this money over to you guys, frankly.”

Tourism commission members assured Shelby and Bolander the money will remain unspent until the nonprofit presents more detailed plans and the commissioners and council come to an agreement.

Jessup expressed disappointment in his fellow council members after the meeting, saying their presentation to the tourism commission appeared to be an effort to supersede the commissioners’ wishes.

He stands by the tourism commission’s decision.

“They did what was prudent. It’s called checks and balances,” Jessup said. “Whether you’re for or against the fairgrounds, that’s the process of doing things.”

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Daniel Morgan is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at (317) 477-3228 or dmorgan@greenfieldreporter.com.