Councilors voice concerns about amending tourism-related contract

·4 min read

Oct. 23—A decision by Muskogee Tourism Authority trustees to hand over day-to-day management of its tourism program to a third-party contractor triggered concerns among some city councilors and initial supporters of the lodging tax that supports it.

The amended contract with Oxford Productions Inc. will take effect in 30 days if it is not voided, because it constitutes a "substantial change" that requires approval by Muskogee City Council. Terms of the agreement include a $3,000 per month management fee and up to $24,000 annually from a 10% incentive from any additional revenue generated for tourism other than the lodging tax.

Avery Frix, owner of Oxford Productions, said the amended contract would provide MTA with the additional capacity it needs to get some "big projects across the finish line." He also said the management agreement also would ensure lodging tax revenue is "being spent wisely and used for the best possible return on investment for tourism" by leveraging funds appropriated for tourism to generate additional revenue "so we're not just working off of the hotel-motel tax."

The amended contract, Frix said, would provide potential savings for MTA of $3,082 a month — costs he said Oxford already pays for things such as software subscriptions or anticipated savings in insurance costs. He said added capacity — the reduced need for additional employees — would save MTA almost another $82,000 annually.

Frix said Oxford would provide a compensation package to all tourism employees that is equal to or better than what they have and retain present positions and levels of authority. Trustees, he said, would retain the prior right to hire the tourism director and set maximum compensation rates for tourism employees, provide direction and approve grants.

City councilors rejected a proposal for third-party management in 2020 when they decided to scrap a system they established under the auspices of Muskogee Redevelopment Authority. That decision resulted with the transfer of tourism program to the former Roxy Theater Community Trust, which was refashioned as Muskogee Tourism Authority.

Three city councilors presently serve as MTA trustees. One favored a one-month delay of the decision, a second abstained without offering an explanation, and a third voted to approve the amended contract.

Ward II Councilor Jaime Stout sought more time to consider the proposal, which was provided to trustees two days before the meeting on Thursday. She also followed the suggestion made by Tourism Director Jordynn Jorgenson, who expressed concerns about how the amendment might impact contributions to her retirement plan.

Ward I Councilor Evelyn Hibbs abstained from voting and declined to comment after the meeting about her vote or the amended contract. Ward IV Councilor Traci McGee approved the contract amendment, which is subject to what Frix described as a "30-day out clause" and a "fair compromise."

"It may still have to go before the council for final approval, so it may ... be moot at that point," Frix said. "We just wanted to present another option and you know whatever the city and the trust and everybody decides, we're happy to continue down whatever path they give us."

Deputy Mayor Derrick Reed said that request to present the matter to councilors had already been made. Reed said he has several questions about the contract amendment.

"This is that drift I have always been worried about, and definitely there are several areas of concern here," Reed said. "There's some questions about the transparency level, and you have a director who is asking for more time — it looked like there was a rush to something, and that's concerning to us."

Ward III Councilor Ivory Vann also expressed disappointment with the MTA's decision to ignore Jorgenson's pleas to delay their decision until she could determine how it would impact her retirement benefits.

"Tourism is very important to us, as a city," Vann said. "Now, when I look at it, it might have been better if the council had just kept it — this was wrong."

City Attorney Roy Tucker said the city's purchasing policies do not require competitive bidding for contracts for professional services. He said as a matter of practice, the city solicits requests for proposals for contracts of that amount.

Tucker said the city's policies do not automatically transfer to a public trust created by city councilors. The trust, he said, would have to adopt a policy of its own.

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