High Point council in 'muddled mess' over funding to Coltrane festival

High Point at-large Councilman Latimer Alexander suggests in an e-mail today that the city might take over John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival in the wake of a fiduciary lapse in which council members granted the festival $32,000 with the understanding that it would be repaid, but failed to formally stipulate the terms of the agreement.

Mayor Pro Tem Bernita Sims brought the request to the council last May on behalf of Friends of John Coltrane, a nonprofit that produced the festival.

Alexander said in an e-mail to community volunteer Cynthia Davis today: “I don’t know how this muddled mess will be unpacked to satisfy everyone. I believe that if the festival is going to move forward it will need to be absorbed within the city under the [High Point] Theatre and/or the Parks & Recreation departments. There will be a place for the Friends of JC and their board to be involved but control and accounting of the flow of money could be managed professionally and the accounting would be without question. Whether the community and city council along with the Friends group can come to agreement on this will determine where the city moves forward with this."

Alexander chairs the city council's finance committee. More from the e-mail:

At this point, I don’t believe the Friends group has the money to repay even if they wanted to. There certainly is no way the city has legal claim against them, nor do I believe that the city would take that action. I also don’t believe that future funds will be awarded to the Friends under the current structure of the festival.

I do believe that the festival could be a tremendous success given time and the proper professional organization of the event. Right now what we have is a group who has a good plan without the professional ability to execute and account for everything that is required. I do not believe nor has anyone ever brought forward any evidence that any money went to anything inappropriate.

I certainly hope that our finance committee meeting will yield people who want to find a solution to the issues and not who want to find a scapegoat. That will not serve our community well. I believe at the end of the day the best solution would be for the board of JC to ask the city to take over and surrender everything they have to the city to pick it up from here and run with it.

I have not made this a suggestion to anyone at this time and I don’t know how others might feel. I do know that Labor Day weekend is usually a very slow time in High Point for our hotels and restaurants. Many of our citizens are off for that last weekend at the beach, lake or campground before the fall season starts. It would be great to have something here that could bring a meaningful number of out-of-towners into the city to celebrate the life and art of JC. Whether that will ever happen, I can’t say but I am concerned that this relatively small amount of money, $27,000 in a general fund budget of over $103,000,000 might split our community up. There are lots of passions on all sides and we need to lead forward as a council and not get mired up and bogged down. This issue will show leadership or lack of leadership on all concerned.

City council minutes reflect that Alexander made a motion to authorize an appropriation of city funds of up to $32,000 to support the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival at a May 2011 meeting. The council had suspended its rules to vote on the motion considering that it was not on the agenda for the meeting.

Alexander acknowledges in today’s e-mail to Davis that Mayor Pro Tem Bernita Sims, who made the request for the funds, promised to repay if the festival made money. The money came out of a downtown improvement fund.

A transcript of the discussion among council members that was released this morning by City Clerk Lisa Vierling quotes Mayor Becky Smothers as asking Sims: “If you meet your budget and exceed your budget before the event, is there anyway perhaps you could repay some of that money that you’re being advanced?”

“Absolutely,” Sims responds. “No problem with that at all.”

Alexander says in the transcript that he will be glad to make a motion for the funds, which were requested to cover marketing and promotion expenses.

“Are you putting in that motion, Mr. Alexander, if the festival is able to raise the money that they have projected, that this advance would at least be… ?” Smothers asks.

“That’s assumed,” Alexander responds. “I don’t mind putting it in the motion, but I believe Ms. Sims has made that comment and that’s assumed.”

Councilman Chris Whitley states that he believes the funds should come from a tourism agency rather than a downtown improvement fund.

Sims says in response: “And if that happens, which we are going to approach that entity again regarding funding – again, if that happens, I have no problem or the committee has no problem with going ahead and refunding those dollars back to the city.”

At the mayor’s request and after further discussion, Vierling restates the motion as “to approve up to $32,000 for the John Coltrane International Jazz Blues Festival.”

The motion passed 5 to 3, with Smothers, Alexander, Sims, Councilman Foster Douglas and Councilman Jim Corey voting in favor, while Whitley, Councilman Britt Moore and Councilman AB Henley opposed it. Councilman Mike Pugh was absent for the vote.

In his e-mail to Davis today, Alexander said, “The issue here is Bernita was speaking for a board [Friends of John Coltrane] without prior authority from that group in writing. Council never asked for Friends board for formal action so from a legal standpoint, there is no written promise of repayment from the board of the Friends of JC.

“I was interested to again read the minutes and that the term loan never appeared anywhere in council comments but it certainly," Alexander continued. "A clear promise of repayment was made but that was again by an individual and not the board. No terms or schedule was ever discussed and no documents were ever prepared to accompany the check.”

The High Point Enterprise reports that the festival brought in $223,566 with total expenses of $200,499, leaving a profit of $23,066.

In council discussion prior to the vote on the $32,000 appropriation, Sims said Friends of John Coltrane had determined that if the festival were to turn a profit, proceeds would go to benefit the restoration of the John Coltrane House, a “John Coltrane festival workshop” hosted by the High Point Arts Council, Brothers Organized To Serve Others and Ladies Organized To Serve Others and Nia Community Action Center, while “leaving some funding in place for the festival next year.”

Along with Sims, Guilford County Commissioner Bruce Davis has served as a member of the board of directors of Friends of John Coltrane.

Davis and Latimer Alexander are both running for NC Senate this year. Davis is challenging fellow Democrat Gladys Robinson in District 28. Alexander is one of a quartet of Republican candidates vying for the new District 27 seat.

The festival itself was generally well received when it made its debut last September, but YES! Weekly music critic Ryan Snyder faulted the program for failing to live up to Coltrane’s legacy of sonic adventurousness, noting that the festival felt musically safe while its namesake never was.

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