Visit Oxford seeking AG opinion

Published 12:04 pm Friday, September 18, 2015

One way to attract more visitors to Oxford is to have travel writers feature Oxford in their respective publications, many of which have national distributions.

To entice those travel writers, most cities pay for a hotel room and a meal and Visit Oxford is no different. However, how Visit Oxford chooses where to send a writer to eat or sleep could be an ethics violation.

On Wednesday, Visit Oxford Assistant Director Kinney Ferris said at a recent ethics class presented by city attorneys with the Mayo, Mallette Law Firm, she and other Oxford Tourism Council members learned the council could be at risk of ethics violations by booking rooms or paying for meals at establishments where a Tourism Council member may benefit by having a vested interest in the business.

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By state law, the Oxford Tourism Council must have members on their board who are in the tourism business, whether a hotel or a restaurant owner.

But state law also says that no board member can be affiliated with a business where Visit Oxford, which is under the Council, does business.

Current hoteliers and restaurateurs on the OTC board are Stefano Capomazza, co-owner of Bouré restaurant; Lee Cauthen, manager of McEwen’s restaurant; Lance Reed, owner of Chick-fil-a restaurant and Luke Chamblee, local partner of Graduate Oxford hotel.

“We can promote any and all businesses and that’s our job to do that,” Ferris said. “But, according to the attorneys, we don’t need to spend money with those business.”

To clear up the confusing ruling, Ferris is asking the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office several questions she hopes to have answered in a written opinion.

Ferris said it might seem easy to just avoid the businesses where board members have ownership; however, travel writers or filmmakers often request certain places to stay and eat.

“And we’re expected to pay for that,” Ferris said. “That’s something we’re going to have to work through.”

Oxford Alderman Jay Hughes, who also sits on the council as an aldermen representative, said it is necessary the council avoid any appearance of impropriety.

“Far better to keep it clean,” he said. “Last thing we want to do is create that appearance. You have to think, ‘Would it look funny to the average customer looking in as that business is being favored?”

Ferris said if the Attorney General’s opinion is that the council cannot do business with board members’ businesses, she would understand if they resigned from the board.

Hughes said it would behoove the board members to see how many hotel nights or meals they would actually be losing a year before deciding to resign.

Capomazza, who was voted in as OTC president starting Oct. 1, suggested perhaps Visit Oxford could give the traveling writers and filmmakers a prepaid debit card.

“You know you give them like $300 and say ‘here spend it where you want,’” he said. “That way Visit Oxford isn’t actually making that decision of where those funds are going.”

Ferris said that could be a way to handle the situation and that she would include it in her list of questions to the attorney general.