After billboards appeared urging residents to vote for a change in the form of county government, rumors about how the group seeking to influence the election bankrolled its media campaign became the buzz. As Someone Noticed dug into the matter, we quickly dismissed talk that local government financed the campaign with direct outlays of public cash. But the inquiry took an unusual turn as officials from the Friends of Charter of Cecil County and local government reported the largest source of revenue for the nonprofit seeking to sway voter opinions on election-day came from helping Economic Development conduct Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Tours.
Given that it seemed unusual for a county department to be involved in assisting the organization’s fundraising effort, we had questions for involved parties. Two days ago, Vernon Thompson, the Director of the Office of Economic Development responded to our inquiry for that agency. This report summarizes the open and helpful conversation with the director as we sought to understand the decision that generated 75% of the total receipts raised by the Friends of Charter through all of its undertakings.
The decision to sponsor two tours at the end of August was made “quickly, in about 30 seconds,” Vernon remarked. The Army originally funded a cluster of trips designed to help workers from Ft. Monmouth find places to settle in the vicinity of Aberdeen Proving Ground. Economic Development supplied the staff to guide the potential residents (aided by volunteers) and incurred some expense for food and beverages. About 2008, the Army “abruptly stopped financial sponsorship so the Chamber of Commerce partnered with Economic Development to hos two additional “See Cecil” trips.
As the deadline for the relocation decision neared, the director was inclined to get out of the tour business. Two years had lapsed so displaced employees had time to consider a decision, he noted. Beyond that large numbers of people would reserve, but “one-half the people wouldn’t show up.” Thus when the army asked about an additional outing at the end of August 2010, the first thought was they needed to get someone else. However, considering the arguments that were made, especially the number of people still needing to firm up transfer plans, the green-light was given authorizing sponsorship of another round.
But as Economic Development got into the logistics of this, it was discovered that two buses would be required. Economic Development’s marketing staff was only able to handle one so the Friends of Charter stepped forward to say they’d escort the second group.
Someone Noticed asked why the county went to an organization trying to influence an election for assistance, especially as a profit was going to come out of the undertaking. The charter group representative, Joyce Bowlsbey, volunteered for earlier trips, so she was capable of stepping right in as she was familiar with the county and the procedures for handling visits. She also worked well with local government in many capacities and on many committees so “with a seasoned guide available” the decision, which had to be made quickly, was move forward.
We also wondered why some other nonpolitical or governmental group couldn’t facilitate the second trip. A couple of people have posted here saying they’d be glad to volunteer for their nonprofits to make that kind of money. Vernon responded, the representative of the Friends group knew how to handle things and the department was satisfied the task would be completed. A challenge, Economic Development faces, it was noted, is there are only a small number of capable and willing people involved with things so there aren’t many option when the agency has to look for volunteers to help with something. As for why Economic Development couldn’t staff it internally through Tourism, personnel at the main office, or county employees elsewhere in government, the director said tourism is a division with a small staff. Tourism is also in the business of marketing the county externally and the director wants to “keep them focused on marketing to tourists.”
That summarizes our conversation with Vernon Thompson, the Director of Economic Development. If there’s anything Vernon wants to add to this news piece, we will be happy to post remarks or receive a statement. We’re still sourcing this news-piece through other contacts, internal and external to county government, so look for additional updates as information is received. In addition, the special issues committee, registered with the Maryland Board of Elections, has a detailed financial report due on October 8, 2010, so that will provide additional fundraising insight.