Johns Creek dumps city tourism board; mayor vows veto

The mayor of Johns Creek said he plans to veto a City Council approved action to terminate a partnership with the city tourism organization. (Courtesy City of Johns Creek)

The mayor of Johns Creek said he plans to veto a City Council approved action to terminate a partnership with the city tourism organization. (Courtesy City of Johns Creek)

The outgoing mayor of Johns Creek said he plans to veto City Council’s decision to terminate a partnership with the city tourism organization.

In a split vote Monday night, a divided City Council voted to sever ties with the Convention and Visitors Bureau and have city staff manage tourism operations instead.

The night sparked heated debate by opposing council members, Convention and Visitors Bureau Chairperson Lynda Smith and others.

Councilperson Stephanie Endres, who has spearheaded dropping the tourism board, read from President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address before the vote.

The motion to cut ties with the tourism organization passed 4-3, with support from Endres, Councilmembers Erin Elwood, Chris Coughlin and mayor-elect John Bradberry. Mayor Mike Bodker and Councilmembers Lenny Zaprowski and Stacy Skinner voted against the measure.

“Just when I thought this council couldn’t hit a new low (we’re) here,” Zaprowski said of the vote.

Bodker said he plans to veto the move, which would allow the measure to be reconsidered by the new City Council and mayor in January.

“ ....I hope the new City Council keeps them in place,” Bodker told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Tuesday.

The mayor said he would make a final decision before the next regular City Council meeting on Nov. 29.

“It’s completely silly that it would even be considered to be brought in-house,” Bodker said. “It’s not how things are done across the state.”

Elwood said she supports the decision to remove the organization because she believes the dysfunctional relationship started with the current City Council and should end there as well.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is funded with about a third of the city’s annual hotel/motel tax revenue, and councilmembers Endres and Elwood have been at odds for more than a year over a mutual lack of trust and transparency.

CVB attorney Monica Gilroy said the organization is due 90 days termination notice, which means the new City Council could still reinstate the partnership in January even without the mayor’s veto.

The history of discord goes back to 2020 when Elwood told the organization that Endres would advise council to stop city funding unless the nonprofit tweaked its bylaws to say it is an agent of the city and made voting changes to conform with the state Open Meetings Act. The message was conveyed without the knowledge of Bodker and fellow council members, which resulted in Elwood issuing a letter of apology.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau adjusted its bylaws as a good faith gesture to show that its meetings are conducted in accordance with the Open Meetings Act, Gilroy said, adding that the organization’s meetings were always open to the public. But Endres maintains that the CVB is not documenting all of its closed executive session meetings. The bureau filed an ethics complaint against Endres last April.

Johns Creek spokesman Bob Mullen said via email Tuesday that the ethics hearing officer didn’t find any violations in the complaint that would called for disciplinary action of the City Council and it was dismissed.

The visitors bureau receives less than $500,000 per year from tax revenue coming from the three hotels operating in Johns Creek, said Smith, the CVB chairperson. It’s the smallest budget of visitors centers in metro Atlanta, she added.

She and Bradberry, who will begin his term as mayor in January, have different views on the economic benefits of bringing tourism operations into City Hall.

Bradberry said Johns Creek could make better use of the funds that would be directed to the Convention and Visitors Bureau, and his priority is the city’s new Town Center plans.

“It was completely a business decision,” Bradberry told the AJC.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau operates with two part-time workers and seven board members as volunteers, Smith said. “We have always been very lean … and strategic with budgeting and marketing,” Smith said.

Bringing tourism operations in-house would not save the city money, Smith said. The city would have to legally create a 501c(6) business organization to distribute hotel/motel tax funds and the costs of hiring full-time staff to perform the same operations would be greater than what the tourism bureau is currently spending, she said.

Endres said that the city has administration in place to manage tourism activities and the cost savings could be directed to such places as Macedonia African Methodist Church Cemetery or Cauley Creek Park.

During public comment at the Monday meeting, Smith said the volunteer tourism board members collectively have over 100 years of experience in marketing and hospitality that can’t be matched by the city.

“This is an embarrassment to our city and who we are, and our neighbors are laughing at us,” she said.

Bodker told the AJC that overall he views the move against the visitor bureau as “disgusting” and a “kick in the stomach” to the organization’s volunteers.