Visit Mendocino, Take Two

The Mendocino County Lodging Association (MCLA), is one of the several overlapping organizations involved in the promotion and marketing of Mendocino County. They met in Boonville last Wednesday afternoon. The meeting was hosted by the Boonville Hotel’s Marcos Magdaleno who is a recently elected member of the 17-member (!) MCLA board. Magdaleno invited me to attend, adding, “Why not? It’s a public meeting.”

Beyond Magdaleno, only one other member of the Board seemed to know that there’s a newspaper in Boonville, so the usual hostility that typically greets your beloved hometown publication was absent. Board Chair John Dixon thought I was from the Ukiah Daily Journal.

Dixon
Dixon

(From Dixon's profile at the Mendocino Community Foundation’s website: “John has been a resident of Mendocino County since July of 2007 when he purchased the 10-room Glendeven Inn in Little River. John received a BA from CSU Long Beach and an MBA from The Peter F. Drucker School of Management at the Claremont Colleges. John’s career has included project management with philanthropist and businessman Dr. Robert Gumbiner, and real estate and entrepreneurial projects of his own. He is a musician and served as Board Treasurer and Membership President of a 200 person $2M non-profit choral group. He conceived and executed a TEDxMendocino event in the village of Mendocino bringing leaders in Technology, Entertainment and Design from all over the state to our county.”)

Before we proceed it seems “appropriate” as the passive-aggressives say, to recall that George Orwell presciently described advertising as “the rattling of a stick in a swill bucket.” Eighty years later more swine than ever come running.

The most interesting item on the Boonville Hotel's meeting agenda, to me anyway, was a discussion about whether to “re-affirm” or “re-appoint” Dixon to the Visit Mendocino County (VMC) Board, which is made up of members from other sister organizations: There’s MCLA, VMC, and the Mendocino County Promotional Alliance (MCPA), each of which have their own boards of directors, all of them, of course, hustling every loose touri nickel, especially the nickels they can shake loose from the County's General Fund.

[ Visual aid: Mendocino County Destination Marketing Organizational Chart ]

The supervisors have to formally approve public investment in tourism promotion since several hundred thousands dollars of matching County tax money goes to promotion. Which the Supes routinely do, not in the least troubled at spending public money to promote private tourist-related businesses. (Supervisor Hamburg is particularly enthusiastic about public funding of tourist promotion, asserting incorrectly and without backup that it generates revenue for the County. Visit Mendocino County employs ten people (count 'em) to do exactly what? The Supervisors do not ask that fundamental question.)

As of Tuesday, there’s now yet another group, a newly appointed “Ad Hoc Committee” made up of another collection of the same promotion people, plus Supervisors John McCowen and Dan Gjerde and a couple of County staffers. The Ad Hoccers are supposed to go over the contract provisions of the arrangement between the County and the promotional groups.

It seems that earlier in the week Mr. Dixon went to a regular meeting of the Visit Mendocino County board in Fort Bragg and was told by whoever was running that meeting that at the previous meeting he had off-handedly remarked that he was present as a “guest.” Upon arrival at this week’s meeting in Fort Bragg, Dixon was handed a lawyer letter written by a paid attorney for the Visit Mendocino County Board informing him that his statement that he was a “guest” at the earlier meeting was equivalent to his resigning from the VMC Board.

When Dixon was told that he had effectively resigned by the VMC attorney, Dixon balked, saying, “No I didn’t. I did no such thing.” But the attorney, citing obscure sections of the VMC and Mendocino County Lodging Association bylaws, combined with even more obscure sections of the California Corporations Code, said, “No, you resigned, Mr. Dixon.” The attorney said that Dixon had to go back to his Mendocino County Lodging Association board and have them re-appoint him to the Visit Mendocino County board.

This wacky attack on Dixon by the Visit Mendocino County Board would never have happened if the Mendocino County Lodging Association Board had not expressed doubt about the effectiveness or high cost of Visit Mendocino County promotional activities.

And that simple, entirely unnecessary act, of what to do about Dixon’s appointment took over half an hour of Wednesday’s meeting of the Mendocino County Lodging Association board in Boonville. Some MCLA Board members thought that they shouldn’t have to “re-appoint” Dixon because he never really resigned, so they should only “re-affirm” Dixon as a VMC Board member. Others thought they should just do what the VMC lawyer said. (It's always surprising how quick lots of people are to defer to lawyers.) Others thought that maybe they should “re-affirm” all five MCLA appointments to the VMC Board because that way there’d be no concession to the VMC lawyer’s bogus claim. In the end the MCLA board went ahead  and reappointed Dixon, trying to avoid any more argument on the point.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dixon, having received a letter from Mendocino County Counsel Doug Losak (who can always be relied upon to confuse things) saying that if MCLA rescinded their contract with VMC, MCLA would be “in breach” of MCLA’s contract with the County since the County had to approve all such changes. Whereupon Mr. Dixon went over and talked to Mr. Losak and concluded that he [Dixon] and the MCLA Board would postpone the rescinding of the VMC contract for a couple of months so that they don’t have to deal with a show cause letter from Losak to MCLA which would require MCLA to come up with an alternative promotional arrangement in 30 days or be officially declared “in breach” which would put an end to about $300k in County money going to MCLA. By postponing the VMC contract cancellation, MCLA now has more time to reconsider their difficult arrangement with VMC.

What had happened was an extremely chickenshit retaliation by Visit Mendocino County's captive board of directors, chaired by former supervisor Hal Wagenet with assistance from fellow board member and former Lodging Association Chair Cally Dym, neither of them averse to chickenshit, toward the County's lodgers for daring to question the operations and expenditures of the top heavy VMC organization, which spends most of the $1 million (or more if the recently proposed changes go through) on themselves, not actual promotion.

The County's Lodging Association simply thinks that Visit Mendocino should spend a lot more money on actual promotion and a lot less on themselves (and be accountable and transparent along the way). And for expressing that simple desire the lodging people have to suffer through all these grasping maneuvers.

The Ad Hoc Committee headed up by McCowen and Gjerde, which was approved by the County Board of Supervisors last Tuesday, is supposed to meet a couple of times between now and sometime in December to review the arrangement and come up with some recommended changes to the contract between the County and disputants. And you can be sure that whatever McCowen and Gjerde et al come up with it will not be the end of the consternation, and in all likelihood VMC won’t like it.

Roger Martin, newly elected member of the Mendocino County Lodging Association board, explained why the lodgers wanted to cancel their contract with Visit Mendocino County at the November 4 Board of Supervisors meeting.

“I was elected to the MCLA board at their recent election. However, I and my other democratically elected board members were not seated. The old board, which consists of many members that have been in control since 2006, demanded that they had some unfinished business that they wanted to complete before we were seated [possibly a reference to the pending modifications to the Tourism Business Improvement District]. A couple of months later we were forced to seat ourselves on the MCLA board. The Executive Committee of the MCLA is supposed to occupy five seats on the Visit Mendocino County Board. I am on the Executive Committee. The VMC, which is supposed to be our employee, informed us that we would not be seated unless we attended a special study group and we must be vetted by the previous VMC board and the MCPA [Mendocino County Promotional Alliance] which is a self-appointed governing body. We all attended the study group. The lodging representatives for VMC have still not been seated as of today [November 4, 2014]. Due to these restrictions and total control of the MCPA we moved to cancel the VMC contract. This motion passed and we have given VMC a 60 day extension. Scott Schneider is the CEO of VMC. He was given his position by Jeff Stanford of the Stanford Inn. For the first few years we were pleased with Scott's efforts. He held the line keeping administrative costs down. He hired professional marketers and advertisers. In 2009, VMC incorporated itself and decided to handle advertising and promotions in house. This is where the train went off the tracks. VMC does not have any professional marketing/advertising experts in their office. The best marketing that VMC does, and they do it to this very day, is to market itself to the County.”

(Martin then held up a chart with a list of Lodging businesses on it.)

“I have this chart which shows some examples of the lodging properties on the north coast of Mendocino — and this is the Mendocino Coast area only — that went bankruptcy or into foreclosure or receivership or out of business since the start of the BID in 2006. Dozens of small businesses on every Main Street in the county have also gone out of business. You can see empty storefronts for almost anything you might need.”

Martin's roster included: Andiron Lodge, Auberge, Cliff House, Dew Drop Inn, Elk Grove Inn, Fools Rush Inn, Greenwood Pier Inn, Gualala Hotel, Harbor House, Hester House, Heritage House, Hill House, Joshua Grindle Inn, Jughandle Inn, Mendocino Hotel, Mendocino Village Inn, Noyo River Lodge, North Cliff Motel, Old Coast Hotel, Pacific Mist Bungalows, Sandpiper Inn, Seashell Motel, Sea Foam Lodge, Secret Garden Bed and Breakfast, Stevenswood, Whate Watch Inn, Whitegate Inn.

“I am in favor of promoting Mendocino County,” Martin continued, “and spending the BID (Business Improvement District) money on advertising. I was pleased to hear that the marketing expert we heard from this year was of the opinion that if something is not right and something is not working then it is our obligation to change it. I take seriously my role in representing allotting owners in Mendocino.”

Marcos Magdaleno, a part owner of the Boonville Hotel: “I am here to express our concerns and opposition to the newly proposed [tiered] BID ordinance. We have numerous concerns but I'll keep this brief. I'll speak to our major concerns with this proposed BID ordinance. We are concerned about the shift in responsibility and management of the BID funds from our elected representatives on the MCLA board and that responsibility being given to the MCPA board. It is our understanding that many of the seats on the MCPA board are not elected representatives but self-appointed with no term limits. This is deeply concerning for us. We strongly believe in continuing with the democratic structure, one that has a good set of checks and balances and this new BID would move away from that structure. We do not support any type of system that gives certain individuals more power than our elected representatives. I certainly am not accusing any board member of MCPA of planning to abuse their power or their position, but we don't believe that a situation should be created where that is even a possibility. Our continuing wish is that the BID funds collected are used responsibly, equitably, and with measured results and accountability. We strongly believe that that is the goal of our current MCLA board. We adamantly urge you to not move forward with the new BID ordinance.”

As it stands, the Board of Supes hopes that the Ad Hoc Committee headed by Supervisors McCowen and Gjerde will somehow come up with something that a majority of these organizations approves of. Supervisor Dan Hamburg’s repeated claim that the County gets some measurable economic benefit from participating continues to be nothing more than his personal opinion, because the County’s own Room Occupancy Tax budget shows that there’s 1. No relation between promotional activity and revenue, and 2. No general increase. Revenues vary somewhat from year to year, but overall, like other County revenue lines, the amount is flat.

* * *

Blast From The Past — July, 2009, Board of Supervisor's meeting: “Somebody said crap moves downhill. The Lodging Association says you can't tax our esteemed tourists who come through — the valued tourists. You can't increase their tax by 1% for parity with adjoining counties. The word was out that there was no support for increasing the bed tax. But by whom? And we immediately folded, or those who bring things forward folded. They don't want it. [The bed tax] taxes outsiders, not Mendocino people. It pays for police protection, emergency services, fire protection and for when we scrape them up off the highway. The cost is enormous and there’s no reimbursement. Why did we abandon the 1% [bed tax] increase? A few bucks for people staying in high end places in Mendocino? A $400 bill would go up $4 for your night of fun and relaxation in Mendocino. $404! No sirree! I will not come to Mendocino again! So they reduce it to $400! That's a compelling argument — if you don't pay attention to common sense and numbers. Did the estimates take into account the cost of administration? Staff work? Will the money come in? We had two big high end destinations go bankrupt on us without paying the bed tax over a long period of time. We know where they are. They had big buildings. We asked the manager, why do you owe us, how much was it? $250k? It's obscene that we could not get them to pay in a timely fashion so we didn't get that money! In the other case we had to use high cost staff time to get part of the money back. If we can't go after the high class destinations in the county and properly collect the [bed tax], how in the devil will we get the little campground operator, the trailer park, to take care of the campers? I'll tell you. We'll have to hire somebody and we'll quickly use up whatever funding is generated because we went to the bottom of the food chain, the campers. If we'd been more effective on the high end places, more efficient…”

— Then Fifth District Supervisor David Colfax

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