Who’s steering Travel and Tourism? | Town & County

Otto I. Eovaldi

Should a former volunteer board member be eligible to receive a lucrative contract the year after departing?

That question was at the center of a heated Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board meeting Thursday, when elected officials and prominent businesspeople debated the ethics, optics and process of awarding a $150,000 to $170,000 website design contract to former board member Brian Modena.

Current board member Joe Madera, who was not on the selection committee, said there were only hours to review the decision matrix being put to a vote. He was worried that it wouldn’t look good for the board to award the money to former board member Modena.

The website redesign had a budget of $400,000, but the Travel and Tourism Board’s marketing committee said the winner — Modena’s local production company TMBR — would come in with a competitive bid around $150,00 to $170,000. That money would be for content creation, site creation and upkeep.

State Sen. Mike Gierau, County Commissioner Mark Barron, planning commissioner Alex Muromcew, and hotelier Steve Meadows were in the audience and spoke up against the motion, elaborating on Madera’s sentiments and asking for more time to review the process.

“Does that mean I think anything’s wrong?” Gierau asked. “No, not necessarily, but it’s the optics.”

Meadows said that if the potential for a conflict of interest wasn’t in the decision matrix, the matrix was flawed.

“Please, I’m not accusing anyone of anything,” Meadows said, but “there are reasons that there’s a revolving door line in [Washington] D.C. You don’t go out the door and become a lobbyist the next day.”

Legally, nothing out of order happened, Chief Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery said. Gingery advises the Travel and Tourism Board, which is composed of all volunteers.

“There’s no law in Wyoming that says you can’t award a contract for goods or services to someone who used to serve on a board,” Gingery told the News&Guide. “Whether or not that’s bad optics, that’s the board’s decision.”

Brian Modena

Brian Modena

Potential award recipient Modena said the entire request for proposal process was the same as he’s seen doing website redesigns for “managed tourism” in mountain towns like Aspen, Colorado, Truckee, California, and Park City, Utah.

When asked directly if he’d left the board to pursue the contract, Brian Modena of TMBR said “unequivocally, no.”

He’d reached his term limit when he left last June. (Disclaimer: Modena also built the community news stream Buckrail, which the News&Guide’s parent company, Teton Media Works, purchased from him in 2020.)

Moving the vote and giving everyone more time to review the contract, as proposed by members of the audience and board member Mary Bess, turned out to be complicated.

Six-year board member Brian Gallagher wanted to make the decision soon, at a special meeting instead of the next regularly scheduled meeting a month out.

That would allow him to vote on the item before needing to leave after two full three-year terms.

“I’d like to vote because I spent hours and hours and hours evaluating these proposals, and I believe we already have the right one,” Gallagher told the room.

Board member Crista Valentino said if she were Gallagher, she’d feel the same.

The travel and tourism board has two open seats. By a sooner special meeting, Valentino said, the two new board members might not yet be chosen from 13 applicants.

The motion to discuss at a special meeting failed, but just the idea of calling a special meeting to expedite the vote left audience members frustrated.

Gierau said that seeing the board try to move the date up was a “red flag … when a board member says, ‘I have to make this decision, I have to be there’ … You have to be able to defend these motions.”

“Who does this board serve?” Barron asked rhetorically from the audience.

“The issue isn’t so much who it’s being awarded to,” Barron said, “but that there hasn’t been a public process. You’re spending a great deal of public money with no transparency.”

But that didn’t seem to satisfy Barron’s question. Barron later commented that the process seemed to serve outgoing board member Gallagher rather than the public and told the board “that’s not your job.”

Board members discussed if the board should have tenured members to make the decision and a mechanism to limit former board members’ ability to apply for contracts.

But those proved to be decisions for another time.

It took four motions for the board to agree to schedule the decision for the next regular meeting, when Gallagher won’t be there. Gallagher was the only one to vote against the motion.

Gierau commented on the last motion that “nobody I’ve heard today, and certainly not me, is saying TMBR isn’t [right] for this contract.” He just wanted the public to have time to come to the same conclusion as the board.

Mark Barron

Mark Barron

Barron summarized his view as wanting to see the board follow the “letter of the law” for how lodging fund tax dollars need to be distributed.

The Travel and Tourism Board is funded by the 2% tax on lodging bills in Teton County. It allocates 60% of the collected funds, and the town and county handle the other 40%. Other counties have to spend 90% of their lodging tax revenue on promotion and only 10% goes to local government.

But the interaction of politicians with the board rubbed Gallagher and Modena the wrong way.

“When politicians complain about processes, it usually means they just don’t like the outcome,” Gallagher said during the meeting.

Gierau said that being called out for questioning the process was another “red flag.”

“I think Shakespeare said it best,” Gierau later told the News&Guide. “Methinks thou doth protest too much.”

Repeated intervention from Meadows, Muromcew and especially Gierau and Barron at Thursday’s meeting, and in prior decisions around the Sustainable Destination Management Plan, seemed like its own conflict of interest, Gallagher and Modena told the News&Guide.

They said this blow-up over a website contract was just one example of a repeated pattern of electeds and members of the Chamber of Commerce trying to promote tourism as much as possible.

Comments from these politicians reminded Gallagher of when the Travel and Tourism board hired its executive director in fall of 2021.

Gierau and Barron “started to interject, to intimidate and claim the process was poor,” Gallagher said, “because … they wanted us to hire the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce to overlook this pool of public funds.”

Anna Olson, CEO of the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce, did not reply to a request for comment before press time.

In interviews after the meeting, the barbs continued.

“It should be pointed out that Mark Barron has a monopoly on commercial laundry in this valley. The more tourists that come to this valley, the more money Mark Barron makes,” Gallagher said. “Same thing with Mike Gierau. He’s got a monopoly on the restaurant business at the Jackson Hole Airport.”

When asked to respond to that comment, Gierau said, “It’s a dirty g-ddamn lie … If they looked into it, I’m not even the majority owner, the business that they’re talking about.”

Gierau and Barron said their only interest was to keep the board’s matters public.

Without transparency, Barron said, someone could introduce legislation to cut the uniquely high amount of lodging tax dollars that benefit the public sector in Teton County.

When asked, everyone agreed that promoting tourism at all costs was a bad idea.

Both Gallagher and Modena pointed to the recent results of a survey of resident sentiments on tourism, which found most of the 4,777 respondents said they believe “tourism development is happening too fast (85%), feel unheard (79%), and support the need for planning and controls (90%),” with 85% of respondents least satisfied with tourism in the summer.

Mark Barron said he “[hasn’t] known anyone, in 10 or 15 years, who has felt we need more summer business.”

But Modena wasn’t convinced. 

“There are businessmen and politicians working hard to keep the gas pedal on tourism,” he said.

This version has been updated to reflect an accurate final quotation. —Ed. 

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