Glenwood chamber defends handling of contract | AspenTimes.com

Glenwood chamber defends handling of contract

Dennis WebbGlenwood Springs correspondent

The board of the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association on Tuesday defended its handling of a tourism marketing contract and criticized how the city is investigating the matter.Meanwhile, another former chamber employee has gone public with her concerns about the chamber’s administration of the $500,000 contract, funded by a city lodging tax.Former chamber Special Events Director Cindy Svatos reiterated concerns raised publicly last week in a letter by Mayor Larry Emery and in an interview by the chamber’s former tourism marketing director, Lori Hogan. Among the concerns is that the chamber may have billed the city for work it hadn’t done, and for excessive and inappropriate travel expenses.Chamber board members took offense at the allegations at a meeting Tuesday morning, saying they are unfounded and harmful, and that the board stands behind chamber President Marianne Virgili.Chamber representatives believe the city’s concerns could have been adequately addressed had the chamber been consulted before Emery issued his letter.”They’ve done the chamber some damage here, and they need to make amends for that,” board member Martha Cochran said.Fellow board member Manette Anderson said the city also has been damaged by the allegations.”It’s impeded and distracted all of us from the things we need to be focusing on,” she said.Some people involved with the chamber, including Virgili, also are involved with Community on the Move, a political group working to get a city transportation tax passed this fall.”From my standpoint, I really need to focus on big-picture things in this community and so does the city,” Virgili said.AllegationsIn his letter, Emery wrote that the city reviewed chamber postage records and found that the chamber appears to have overbilled the city by $86,000 for 30,192 visitor guide mailings “for which no backup can be provided.” The city also surveyed people whose names were in databases the chamber used to justify its billings and found that none had requested or received information about Glenwood Springs. The city found that the bulk of the names in the databases apparently came from magazines in which the chamber advertises, including AAA Home Away and Modern Bride Colorado.The city also concluded that Virgili and Hogan apparently used the tourism fund to pay for expenses not allowed of city employees, including mini-bar expenses, in-room movies and expensive meals.Svatos worked for the chamber for six years and said she left her job in 2003 when Virgili wanted to pay her as a contractor rather than an employee. Like Hogan, Svatos says Virgili pressured employees to come up with names the chamber could claim it had made mailings to so it could bill the city and meet its budget.”She said, ‘I don’t care how you get them, just get them.'”Virgili was concerned because people were getting more information via the Internet and requesting fewer visitor guides, Svatos said. She said employees would cut and paste 2-year-old data into the databases “just to fill in names, but they weren’t ever being mailed.”Personnel mattersShe also said there were times when the chamber ran out of magazines to mail, yet names still were being entered and the city still was being billed.In addition, Svatos said Virgili transferred chamber Finance Director Shiela Mugford to another position within the chamber when she began asking questions about how things were being done.”That’s not my understanding” of why Mugford changed jobs, Cochran said in an interview Tuesday. She added, “I’m not going to talk about personnel matters.”On Sept. 16, Mugford left the chamber, where she last served as special events director. She said she resigned voluntarily, but she declined to comment further.Contacts are billable, chamber saysCochran said Svatos’ concerns reflect her mistaken belief that the chamber billing is directly connected to sending out magazines. In fact, chamber board members say, contacts with the public, such as people who walk into the chamber office, log on its website, speak with chamber representatives at trade shows or fill out reader service cards also are billable.Emery said city officials disagree.”No one on [City] Council felt that we should be reimbursing people roughly $3 apiece for sending out a postcard,” he said.Cochran said that reimbursement amount also reflects the chamber’s staff time in making public contacts.The chamber contends that its postage meter records and other documentation show its tourism-related contacts from 2001 to 2004 totaled more than 70,000, but it billed the city for only 46,000 contacts.City officials say the review of chamber postage records included bulk mailings, but chamber officials say those mailings, for which it has receipts, weren’t looked at when the city tried to find substantiation for claimed mailings.Among the bulk mailings the chamber says can be considered tourism-related contacts were 10,379 in 2003 for the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park opening, and 3,562 in 2004 for reader response cards sent to subscribers of Modern Bride Colorado. Chamber officials say it’s possible that people surveyed by the city, such as Modern Bride subscribers, simply don’t remember being contacted by the chamber.Responding to the city’s travel concerns, chamber officials also said Tuesday that Virgili charges none of her travel expenses to the tourism fund. Hogan has said she never charged drinks or movies to the fund.Virgili said the city had told the former marketing director – she didn’t identify Hogan by name – that alcohol couldn’t be charged to the city, and she believes that practice stopped afterward. Virgili said she instructed that chamber funds could be used for paying for alcohol where it was appropriate in entertaining clients.The chamber also has a policy that sets a per-diem cap on meal reimbursements, chamber officials said. They also said the marketing director’s expenses were turned in directly to the city. For that matter, they say, the city receives monthly bills from the chamber for all tourism fund expenses.”Why is it all of the sudden coming up now that they don’t have backup of these things when it’s been taken care of on a monthly basis up until now?” board member Karen Christner said.Emery had given the chamber until Oct. 7 to respond in writing to the city’s concerns, but chamber officials were working to issue a response this week in hopes of addressing them quickly.Emery looks forward to that response. “We made very specific findings, and we would like very specific answers,” he said.