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Is it too late for the bicentennial?

It’s probably too late to avoid tainting the Fayette County bicentennial celebration in 2019, for which planning should have been far along by now.

As readers may know by now, two members of the Tourism Board were not reappointed at the end of 2017. Two more members resigned in early 2018. The new board members asked for records from the previous Tourism Board starting in February. Former Board chairwoman Donna Schroeder did not turn them in until mid-June.

I first became aware of this the day after a May 16 Tourism Board meeting. A person who had attended that meeting told me that the board chairwoman, Amy Hammons, had asked Schroeder for records. Here it was nearly six months after Schroeder’s term ended and she still had records. This person asked, what’s that say about someone who is a candidate for the Fayette County Council.

So I contacted Hammons, who asked the Connersville News-Examiner not to print something that would possibly disrupt the functioning of the new board, which, she said, was just getting started in good directions.

In the hope that Schroeder would turn in the records and the Tourism Board could go on about its business, I decided to honor Hammons’ request but also resolved to attend the next Tourism Board meeting on June 13. 

At about the same time in May, Fayette County Auditor Jane Downard emailed a request for financial records going back to 2015 to Schroeder. In a return email, Schroeder said she would turn in the records in a few days.

By June 13, Schroeder still hadn’t turned them in. I called Schroeder the next day about it. She said she planned to give the records to Downard that day or Friday. We printed that information in Friday’s paper. Schroeder didn’t turn in the records.

On Monday, June 18, Schroeder took the records to the auditor’s office. Downard had indicated to Schroeder that she would be on vacation that week and had instructed her staff to place anything turned in by Schroeder in a secure location until Downard returned.

Schroeder had said only a few records were missing.

Downard reviewed what Schroeder had turned in. She had to ask the bank for copies of some Tourism Board checks. She made a spreadsheet listing 41 payments made for which there was no supporting documentation such as invoices or receipts, a total of $21,723.49.

Schroeder had said she would try to obtain documentation for the expenditures. To my knowledge, she is working on that project.

During all of this, I had asked Mayor Harold Gordon why he chose not to reappoint Schroeder. He said that he had attended some Tourism Board meetings and did not like the way Schroeder ran them. He said he had asked her not to conduct public business that way and, when she continued, he decided against renewing her appointment.

Two other people have confirmed to me what Gordon said. 

All of this clouds the issue of who will run the Fayette County Bicentennial, which should be in 2019. Schroeder wanted Historic Connersville Inc. to do it in partnership with the Tourism Board. She is HCI’s president.

In February 2017, she went to the Fayette County Commissioners to “get their blessing” on having the Tourism Board partner with HCI on the county bicentennial. The Board of Commissioners voted to put the Tourism Board in charge of the bicentennial, without specifying HCI.

In November 2017, Schroeder got the Tourism Board’s approval to name a bicentennial planning committee that would include her as chairwoman and Leota King as vice chair. King was a Tourism Board member and is president of the Fayette County Commissioners. The Tourism Board allocated $20,000 to the county bicentennial.

Gordon informed Schroeder on Dec. 28, 2017, that he would not be reappointing her. On Dec. 29, she sent email to other Tourism Board members asking them to vote to affirm the allocation of $20,000 to the Fayette County Bicentennial, which would be in 2019.

Because tax money finances the Tourism Board, voting by email is not legal, a fact that Schroeder did not know.

On Jan. 3, 2018 – after her term on the Tourism Board expired – Schroeder went to the Fayette County Treasurer’s office and wrote out a check for $20,000 from the Tourism Board, depositing it into an account for the county bicentennial. The check required two signatures and had been pre-signed by the Tourism Board’s treasurer, Jenny Badore. 

In February, Downard reversed that action, putting the money back into the Tourism Board’s funds.

In reviewing the Tourism Board’s financial records in June, Downard found other checks that had been pre-signed by Badore.

Schroeder has said repeatedly that the committee established last November by the Tourism Board should be the bicentennial planning committee. Last week, County Commissioner Gary Naylor signed a letter stating his view that the commissioners had intended for the Tourism Board to run the bicentennial.

Schroeder responded that HCI should have the lead. Hammons responded to Schroeder, saying that HCI could still be involved but that the Tourism Board needs to see HCI’s plan and a budget if HCI wants Tourism money.

That seems reasonable to me.

One of the many things I enjoyed about the city of Connersville Bicentennial in 2013 was that people from many groups and walks of life cooperated. Given what’s happened already, it may be too late to expect that of the county bicentennial.

Either prove me wrong or use the money for something else.

Bob Hansen is the Connersville News-Examiner’s editor. Contact him at 765-825-0588 ext. 235 or by email at bhansen@newsexaminer.com.