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News & Record Masthead
December 4, 2003

Watchdogs limit their oversight

The War Memorial Commission has lost clout since the city hired Director Matt Brown

BY TAFT WIREBACK
Staff Writer

GREENSBORO - The board that is supposed to be supervising the Greensboro Coliseum has gone more than a year without voting on any substantive issue affecting the operation of the multimillion-dollar sports and entertainment complex.

For months, the nine-member War Memorial Commission cast votes only to approve minutes of its most recent meeting and to elect its officers, according to records on file with the City Clerk's Office.

During that time, the coliseum has come to increased public attention for assuming temporary control of the Greensboro Generals pro-hockey team, a venture that might well make money for the city or one that could cost taxpayers if financial losses climb enough. In addition, some of the building's operating practices were criticized by the city's internal auditing division in a series of reports late last year.

The commission took no action on either of these important issues, although the city ordinance governing it prescribes a vigorous public role for the group.

The commission's chairman, former City Council member Dick Grubar, said the board is fulfilling its role as defined by the council when it gave coliseum Director Matt Brown more authority when he was hired than previous directors had. It is pointless for the commission to vote on issues in which it has no real authority, he said.

"I didn't and I don't see the need for us to vote on things that don't have any power or fulfillment," Grubar said.

Matt Brown   Ed Kitchen
Greensboro Coliseum Director Matt Brown (left) "likes a lot of authority, and that's what he was given when he came here," City Manager Ed Kitchen (right) says.

The ordinance says the commission should "serve as an advisory group ... (that) "makes rules and regulations for the use and operation of the Greensboro War Memorial, including fees for its use, subject to the approval of the City Council."

Among other duties, the commission's operating manual says it should review all major policies of the coliseum and "make recommendations to the coliseum director, the city manager and the City Council particularly as it applies to unusual or long-term contracts or agreements." It also says the commission should review "all special projects involving major expenditures, operation of the facilities, and any and all substantive changes in coliseum regulations, policies, procedures, rental rates, charges, fees, etc."

The evidence, both from the commission's minutes and interviews with its members, suggests that what was intended at least partly as a public watchdog has become something closer to a booster club.

The city paid $120,000 for a consultant's study two years ago that questioned the commission's purpose. The in-depth study by the KPMG consulting firm said that the city should either get the commission more involved in coliseum oversight, eliminate it as a needless appendage or, at a minimum, change the city ordinance that created the group to reflect its less dynamic role.

"Currently, facility management assumes many of the roles originally designated to the commission," KPMG said. "Consequently, the commission has limited opportunity to influence facility operations."

City officials acknowledge that coliseum Director Matt Brown was given more power than any of his predecessors when he was hired nine years ago. However, they said that the specifics of Brown's expanded powers aren't spelled out clearly enough.

"Matt likes a lot of authority, and that's what he was given when he came here," City Manager Ed Kitchen said. "It's not written on paper the way it should be, and we'll fix that."

Kitchen said he has assigned Deputy City Manager Mitchell Johnson to take a more active role at the coliseum and to put additional procedures in place as checks and balances.

Brown said he would not have taken the job in November 1994 unless given free rein to run the building in an efficient way, without undue interference from an advisory board.

The coliseum's sports, entertainment and other deals simply move too fast for excessive involvement by an oversight board, Brown said: "Our deals are done in a matter of minutes, not days or weeks. ... I wouldn't have come here with out that authority."

Brown added that he does value the commission as a sounding board that can provide important "advice and counsel." He said the commission is scheduled to receive an updated manual at its meeting today that "acknowledges the changes that were made (when he was hired) and redefines their role."

Meanwhile, in some instances, the commission apparently has been discharging its supervisory duties in an informal way without taking official action, City Attorney Linda Miles said.

For example, the commission formed a three-member finance committee in response to KPMG's critique. That committee scrutinized the coliseum complex's new budget, but the full commission took no action on the committee's subsequent report.

Commission Chairman Grubar said that he was not briefed on the city's December 2002 internal audit, which questioned some of the coliseum's financial practices relating to concerts, sporting events, concession revenues and parking fees.

"No, I was not familiar with the audit," Grubar said. "It's probably my fault for not picking up on it."

Commission members did know about the temporary takeover of the Generals, Grubar said. They did not take a position on that because it was "more of a policy decision and at a higher level than us."

"It was better for him (Brown) to go to the council and let them say yea or nay," Grubar said.

Dick Grubar
AUGUST L. MEYLAND III/News & Record
Dick Grubar, former Greensboro city councilman and chairman of the War Memorial Commission, says the board is fulfilling its role as defined by the council when it gave Greensboro Coliseum Director Matt Brown his additional powers. "I didn't and I don't see the need for us to vote on things that don't have any power or fulfillment," Grubar says.

Grubar was on the council when Brown was hired. Brown has not overstepped the limits of authority the council intended for him to assume at that time, said Grubar, Kitchen and other city officials.

Other commission members said that in addition to forming the finance committee, they responded to KPMG's August 2001 report by beefing up their efforts to publicize the good side of the coliseum. Media coverage too often focuses on controversies involving the complex rather than the significant, positive impact it has on the local economy, they said.

Recently, the commission oversaw development of a 20-minute video that describes in detail the complex's economic impact and its contributions to the city's cultural life.

The commission also responded to the KPMG report by creating a three-person public relations committee. But the terms of two committee members have expired and they rotated off the commission, leaving Commissioner Kevin Green as the subpanel's lone member.

'Do I think we are doing a good job as a commission? I would say, yes, we are," Green said.

Commission members Jim Galyon and Worth Holleman said they believe the board fulfills a significant part of its duties behind the scenes in such functions as attending coliseum events, volunteering at some of them and serving as conduits of information between coliseum management, other city officials and the public. The commission recently was proactive in dealing with complaints by a handicapped patron that the facility was not adequately accessible to the disabled, Gaylon said.

Since coming on the board in August 2002, Galyon said he can't remember the commission voting on anything other than minutes and electing officers.

But he said it is simply a different sort of board than, for example, the quasi-judicial Greensboro Zoning Commission on which he served previously.

After the KPMG report was published with its relatively blunt criticism, the commission protested some of its findings, pointing out that the report did not adequately consider the additional authority that Brown was given when he was hired. KPMG conceded the point, but said that if the city wanted to operate that way it needed to change the ordinance that mandates a more robust commission.

The situation remains, at best, unclear. The board was formed more than 40 years ago to provide greater oversight than the council can give to a complex that now has an annual budget in excess of $12 million and usually requires a yearly taxpayer subsidy of $1 million or more to offset its operating deficit.

On one hand, city officials say the board's role was altered when Brown arrived. On the other, they say that it can still discharge its duties without overhauling the ordinance as KPMG recommended.

Even City Council members are not in total accord about what they want from the commission. Some see its central role as little more than a community "cheerleader" while at least one would like to see it return to the more formal advisory role it once discharged.

"They are a PR (public relations) arm of the coliseum," council member Robbie Perkins said.

Council member Tom Phillips agreed, saying "I know what the ordinance says, but I view them as more of an advisory or support group."

But council member Sandy Carmany said that though she has no problem with the way Brown is running the complex, she would like to see the commission return to a more traditional role. Carmany attends most War Memorial Commission meetings as the council's liaison to the group.

"I would like to see the commission exercise the authority that already is in the city codes," Carmany said.

Contact Taft Wireback at 373-7100 or twireback@news-recorcd.com


 
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