Alpharetta’s CVB Ticketgate

Every Friday Roots in Alpharetta features an article on food and dining in a series called Foodie Friday. Please indulge me with a slightly off-topic post this week. Thanks.

Occasionally I receive a freebie from a restaurant. It’s a practice that happens all the time to food writers everywhere. I never, ever ask for freebies nor do I expect them. Quite frankly, I feel uncomfortable accepting them. I understand that restaurant owners and PR firms want to generate buzz. But to me, I’m happy to promote newly opened and locally owned restaurants. It’s what I do here in my Foodie Friday column.

But freebies happen and I do accept them from time to time. I also have a clear disclosure policy on my about page. If I review a restaurant that gave me a freebie, I mention what I received at the bottom of the review. It would be easy not to mention this, so why do it? Because my reputation is worth more to me than any freebies I might receive. Not that I pretend to have a stellar culinary reputation or anything, it’s just the right thing to do.

That’s why I was flabbergasted to read the AJC’s column yesterday about Alpharetta council members taking taxpayer-purchased concert tickets without disclosure. Surely a blogger who gets a free beer and appetizer wouldn’t have a more open disclosure policy than elected officials?

If you’re not familiar with the issue… The Alpharetta Convention and Visitors Bureau purchased concert tickets at Verizon Wireless Amphitheater using tax dollars. Some of those tickets were given to Alpharetta’s mayor, city council members and staff without disclosure. Records pertaining to these gifts were destroyed. I encourage you to read the AJC’s article in its entirety.

The AJC names many current and some past council members. I believe nearly every member of this body was involved to some degree or another. I reached out via email to those the AJC didn’t name. One former council member would not tell me how many free tickets he received. However, he didn’t hesitate to call the AJC’s piece “sensationalism.”

Alpharetta prides itself on its “city of ethics” designation. Alpharetta is also very mindful of its reputation, particularly how it might be used to attract businesses and visitors. An issue like this does not need to be handled with claims of media sensationalism. Instead I think the city and CVB should tackle this head-on by following these steps:

  1. Attempt to reconstruct a list of gifts. The AJC did a decent job with the information they had. Continue this with all information available and with cooperation of council members. Publish the list. Publish any future gifts.
  2. Require that all council members reimburse taxpayers the full face value of the tickets they were given.
  3. Ask the city attorney to formally investigate this matter as an ethics violation. He may wish to recuse himself though as he was also on the receiving end of free tickets.
  4. Enhance the CVB’s record keeping processes with an eye towards transparency. Forbid giving anything to elected officials.
  5. Consider modifying the city’s ethics policy to clamp down on nearly every gift.
  6. Use this opportunity to come clean with any other gift giving perks.

Do the right thing, guys.

Photo Credit: Alpharetta CVB/Chris Lee (Creative Commons)

22 comments on this post.
  1. Kim:

    Thanks for giving this piece the attention it deserves, Lee.

    I would add to #4 “…or city employees.”

    I went to CVB yesterday asking for my free tickets but they didn’t have any to offer me. I could not believe they were still digging their heels in and defending the practice though! Seriously. That takes some gall.

    WSB’s report said that Councilman Oakes took over $12,000 worth of tickets. That is almost twice again what a council person is compensated. This is outrageous!

  2. Cool Papa Bell:

    I noticed the last several Foodie Fridays have been a “best of” and compilation lists, plus I think one guess review. I think it’s been at least a month since a review. Are those days a thing of the past?

  3. Lee:

    Fair criticism. I’m trying to visit new restaurants several times and write deeper reviews. Unfortunately it takes more time to get these done. But I’ll strive to be better! Look for something on Smashburger next week. BW Tavern will probably come after that then hopefully La Casa once they open.

  4. Jon Mahn Sun:

    This really is a disgrace. Any council member running for office who fails to pay back the full face value of every single ticket they took should be voted out. So far none has done the right thing. After all they are politicians and they are living up to their (bad) reputation.

  5. Kim:

    @Jon – Incredible as it seems, none of them believe they did anything wrong according to the followup story.

  6. Kim:

    It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.

    What are the consequences of such a perversion? It would require volumes to describe them all. Thus we must content ourselves with pointing out the most striking.

    In the first place, it erases from everyone’s conscience the distinction between justice and injustice.

    No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.

    The nature of law is to maintain justice. This is so much the case that, in the minds of the people, law and justice are one and the same thing. There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things are “just” because law makes them so. Thus, in order to make plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is only necessary for the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them.

    <u<The Law, by Frederic Bastiat
    A must-read for all serious students of history

  7. Kim:

    The Law, by Frederic Bastiat

  8. Jon Mahn Sun:

    Still no council member has paid back the ticket prices. Nor has the mayor. I hope there is more investigation over this, my neighbor is really steamed about this. Shouldn’t this be under investigation by someone, maybe the attorney general office?

  9. Craig:

    Unfortunately, this story has gotten overblown and is now being used as a political tool.

    Are the tickets gifts or entertainment? Many companies make a distinction and have separate policies regarding them.

    The only way Mayor, Council, and city leadership can promote and support one of Alpharetta’s greatest asset is to experience it firsthand. I want them to visit the amphitheater several times per year to have a full understanding of its operation. I have no problems with them using ACVB tickets to go to a few shows per year – beyond that might be a bit excessive. But, really, it is up to the ACVB board to determine who gets tickets, how many they get, and for what purpose. I do think the ACVB should have controls and tracking regarding the use of their tickets.

    I’d hate for Mayor and Council to have a knee jerk reaction to complaints such as noise raised by only a few citizens. Knowing and experiencing the amphitheater should aid them in discussing, promoting, and making sound decisions regarding it. They can see how nice of a facility it is, how well it operates, and hear compliments or complaints from residents, employees, artists, etc. while in attendance so as to keep it an attractive asset with minimal regulation where promoters and performers want to book shows and patrons enjoy coming.

  10. Lee:

    @Craig – I’ll write more about this tomorrow. But following your argument… why stop at concert tickets? Should politicians be promoting Alpharetta’s restaurant scene in the same way? Then maybe a few steak dinners at Cabernet would be in order. How about free movie tickets? Maybe get into park and rec events for free, or perhaps free tuition to private schools? Where do you draw the line?

    I expect any town’s council to be champions of local activities. It shouldn’t take tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to make that happen.

  11. John Mahn Sun:

    Doug DeRito and David Belle Isle have (finally) annoucnced they are paying back the cost of the tickets they received.

    How about it Jim Paine? Are you going to do the right thing also or not?

    What about the council members?

    We’re waiting………………

  12. Kim:

    @Craig – No eyebrows raised had it been a show or two. We might even expect them all to be invited to opening season every year.

    You’re missing the issue. It is the abuse of privilege and the subsequent destruction of public records that is the problem.

    Public funds used for private business matters as Cheryl Oakes did is also wrong. I’ve received gifts from real estate agents over the years after purchasing a home, but I would hope gifts were on the realtor’s own dime, not taxpayer money. It was not right for her to use public funds to be passed off as a gift to her client. So were the tickets written off as a business expense? Or were any taxes paid on tangible gifts over $250?

    Oakes, Regus, and Letchas all sit on the CVB board, BTW.

    Also keep in mind that we don’t know how much taxpayer money was spent in total since they haven’t kept records for a couple of years while the practice admittedly continued.

  13. Kim:

    Where would municipal marketing fall in the Constitution, BTW?

  14. Kim:

    Good to see that some are paying back. This is the right thing to do. It still doesn’t completely absolve it for me.

    Character is doing the right thing when no one is looking.

  15. Greg:

    Lee, if you’re going to explore the issue, you should research whether Johns Creek Mayor Bodker and any other JC city council people paid their own way into the PGA Championship. I don’t know the answer – I’m just curious.

    Concerning your answer to Craig, I’m pretty certain our tax dollars have paid for city council members’ various meals at Alpharetta restaurants in the past!

  16. Greg:

    I guess my personal take on this is that these people spend a pretty good amount of time and catch a lot of heat from people like us in the role they have. I don’t want them getting rich off being on the city council, and they aren’t. But they, including the staff that got some of these tickets, are essentially the top people in a fairly large organization. As long as they’re transparent (and they haven’t been so far), I don’t have a problem with them taking advantage of some of these tickets. That’s a pretty standard practice in the corporate world, particularly for those closer to the top.

    Again, though, I’ll emphasize that they need to be transparent about it.

  17. Jon Mahn Sun:

    @Kim – I will give De Rito credit, it seems he has done the right thing when no one was looking. He paid back the tickets without fanfare or an announcement. Bell Aisle wanted a big show over it. Personally I prefer the quiet approach. Now what about Mr. Paine, when is he going to pay back the money for the tickets?

  18. Greg:

    The AJC is reporting that Paine, like De Rito, was in the process of quietly paying back the money.

  19. Kim:

    I too prefer the quiet approach and I’ve seen DeRito take this approach on other things in the past as well.

  20. Travis Allen:

    I hope this mess convinces people to NOT vote for Belle Isle.

    $75 a ticket? Really, David have you purchased concert tickets in the past 10 years? Face Value? Really, have you not noticed that tickets have all sorts of surcharges on them nowadays!

    Glad I don’t have to vote in Alpharetta, but if I did, I could tell you who I wouldn’t vote for.

  21. Certainly not a City of Ethics… |:

    [...] Alpharetta blogger, mentioned the story in one of his posts and was horrified by the conduct of his officials. He said: That’s why I was flabbergasted to [...]

  22. CR:

    I don’t want to vote for Mayor. This is not a company that has season tickets. This is public service and tax payer money. What the…?!! Can we vote for none of the above?

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