The Dallas City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved an amended contract with VisitDallas intended to resolve significant concerns raised by an audit released earlier this year.
That vote, which amends a contract in its final year, will also move the Dallas Film Commission out of Dallas City Hall and back to the convention and visitors bureau, and redirect about $500,000 of VisitDallas’ annual revenue toward arts and cultural organizations and historic preservation.
But despite the vote, several council members made it very clear they remain unhappy with VisitDallas, noting a lack of transparency and a refusal to answer questions about executives’ salaries.
South Dallas’ council member Adam Bazaldua was particularly piqued by a report in Wednesday’s Texas Monitor that said the number of VisitDallas executives making more than $100,000 in salary shot up from 16 in 2016 to 30 in 2017. Those numbers come from the bureau’s just-released Form 990, which nonprofits are required to file with the IRS. It shows several employees making between $200,000 and $300,000.
A handful of council members said their aye votes were made begrudgingly, offered only because they didn’t want to do harm to workers in hotels, restaurants, theaters and other industries impacted by visitors to Dallas.
“Those are the people who make Dallas work, who make VisitDallas exist,” said West Dallas’ council representative Omar Narvaez. “Those are the people who are Dallas.”
In January the city auditor chastised VisitDallas for numerous failings, among them the use of mushy and misleading metrics, the commingling of revenue sources in violation of state law, and allowing then-president and CEO Philip Jones for using company money to pay for personal items, including, most infamously, a $543 Tumi backpack.
Jones would later call a press conference to defend his expenses and insist there had been no wrongdoing. But by May, Jones had resigned – eventually, to sell Saudi Arabia to tourists — with $600,000 in severance pay. And its chief financial officer, Matthew Jones (no relation), was fired.
Far North Dallas’ Cara Mendelsohn tried to get more from the hotel occupancy taxes diverted toward arts and historic preservation. Several council members said they would like to do that in the future — if the contract is extended in 2020 — but in the end that vote came up short, after a majority of the council said they weren’t comfortable making such a dramatic change on the fly.
Convention & Event Services Director Rosa Fleming said in October that VisitDallas never had firm dates for providing the city with financial data; it never even provided the city with its annual budget. Fleming has said the so-called “amended and restated” contract will provide City Hall its numbers by no later than March 1, and give the city an annual year-end breakdown by no later than Dec. 30.
Council chambers were packed for the vote: Almost two dozen hoteliers, chambers of commerce presidents, airline executives, concert promoters, small-business owners and even ministers stepped to the open mic before the vote to defend the organization. Several, too, recited by-now familiar talking points about how VisitDallas brought $8 billion in business to the city last year and helped make Dallas a top-five destination for meetings.
Chris Pilavakis, general manager of Renaissance Dallas Hotel, spent his minute at the open mic blaming the media for its “sensational” coverage of the audit.
He said the reporting offered a “biased impression of their work” and a “manipulation of the truth.”
This isn’t a new contract or the extension of one, just the rewriting of an existing one that turns over the marketing and promoting of this city to an outside organization. VisitDallas’ contract actually doesn’t expire until September 2020. Assistant city manager Joey Zapata, who oversees the city’s dealings with the bureau, has said previously council will begin discussing whether to stay the course or change direction early next year.
Sam Coats, VisitDallas’ interim CEO, said after the vote it was “a good first step.” But it’s clear from council’s comments there’s much work to be done before next fall.
“We’ve done what we were asked to do, and we deserve to move forward,” Coats said. “We want to work to continue to do what we do best, and that’s market the city.”
Staff writer Hayat Norimine contributed to this report.