A passionate crowd of Ringgold residents and neighbors packed City Hall Monday night, June 11, after a social media post by the mayor stirred controversy regarding the finances involved with the city’s biggest community event.
For more than 40 years, the 1890s Day Jamboree has been the marquee event in Ringgold, taking place every Memorial Day weekend. The event features entertainment, competitions, vendors, food, crafts, and a fireworks display.
Over the weekend, Mayor Nick Millwood shared a post from his personal blog (https://nickmillwood.com/2018/06/09/1890s-days-accusations) on Facebook outlining questions and rumors regarding how the funding and revenue streams from the event are overseen and accounted for.
The post mentioned rumors and accusations Millwood says he’d heard from various people in town about how the event’s coordinator, Ronal Graham, might be taking in personal financial gain from the event.
Although the 1890s Day Jamboree is its own organization, the city’s Convention and Visitor’s Bureau (CVB), which Graham is also the chairman of, contributes $10,000 worth of tourism dollars to event’s production fund.
During Monday night’s meeting, with 50-60 people attending, the matter was discussed at length, with numerous residents sharing their outrage that such accusations could be considered against Graham.
“I’ve been the coordinator of 1890s Days for 28 years and I’ve seen it grow from the courthouse yard to four city blocks,” Graham said. “Every year I think there are questions of ‘where does all the money go’. There’s never been an accusation of theft or anything. It’s a free event for everybody, there’s no charge, it costs money to put it on. …. All the entertainment is paid for and this has never been an issue.”
Graham said he heard about allegations of missing money on Chattanooga’s News Channel 9 Monday morning prior to the meeting.
“This seems to occur after communications with you Mr. Mayor, either by you or your Facebook,” Graham said. “I don’t know why Ringgold city does business on Facebook anyway.”
Graham read three comments that were replies to Millwood’s post regarding the matter, one of which accused him of “having too much power in the city” and “stealing money from the taxpayers”.
“I’m going to tell you where the money goes. …. $43,440.32 went into 1890s Days in 2018,” Graham explained. “$41,835.42 has been collected so far. There are still some bills to be paid and still some sponsor money to come in. $10,000 is from hotel/motel tax money that is not Ringgold city resident’s taxes. There’s a contract agreement between the CVB and 1890s Days. It’s not a donation.”
Graham added that he has no issue with allowing the city the opportunity to look at the financial records of the event.
“I’d like to see the council appoint somebody on your council with integrity and who’s trustworthy to be in charge of looking at the accounting of 1890s Days, and I feel like it’d be best if it wasn’t the mayor,” Graham said.
A side from Graham, several residents and 1890s Day volunteers expressed their displeasure with how the matter was handled.
“Have you ever attended an 1890s Day planning meeting,” asked David Cummings, a volunteer for the event for the past 28 years.
“No sir,” Millwood replied.
“I never saw you there,” Cummings added. “I’ve never seen you doing any of the work to put the event on, I’ve never saw you do anything but get on the stage for a photo opp, and then take part in the parade. That’s all I’ve ever seen you do, and then you question the integrity of the people who put this on.”
While the overwhelming majority of those who spoke used their words to defend Graham, resident Brian White said he understands the need for accountability as far as financial bookkeeping goes.
“People just want to know where the money’s going. It’s not who’s done what,” White said. “You have to have accountability for everything you do. There needs to be and open-book policy to show everybody what’s going on and there’s no confusion.”
Millwood took the time to address his motivation behind the blog and Facebook posts, stating he was trying to look out for the city’s responsibility to account for funds.
“I feel like as far as policy from the city goes, we’ve put the 1890s Days members in a bad spot,” Millwood said. “Our policy right now has $10,000 going out the door.”
Millwood explained that he does not personally think anyone has been misappropriating funds, but that he felt the need to inquire about how the city’s contributed funds are used.
“The city has no way to confirm that it (theft) is not happening, and that’s my issue,” Millwood said. “It’s a policy issue from the city’s standpoint that to me is unacceptable. I’m worried there’s a perception that I was trying to hurt 1890s Days or hurt you (Graham) personally, and I understand where that perception is coming from. I very much appreciate all of the work that you do. Thank you for the work that you do. In my opinion, we’ve put you in a bad spot as far as policy goes. … Whenever that kind of money walks out the door, we just need to be able to account for it.”
Millwood admitted that he could have handled the situation better, and that he was simply looking to have financial information available as a way to put any rumors regarding skimming or theft to rest.
“I do feel like I could have done this better, and I feel like a lot of people who feel very deeply about you (Graham) were hurt by how it’s all gone down, and that’s very unfortunate,” Millwood said. “I don’t want the perception to be that I’m unappreciative or that I’m accusing anyone of doing anything wrong,”
City Council members' thoughts
Members of the City Council also weighed in on the matter.
Mayor Pro Tem Terry Crawford questioned why Millwood waited until now to question the event’s finances, pointing out that Millwood has been an elected official in Ringgold for six-plus years, four years as a council member, and the past two and a half years as mayor, even serving on the CVB board with Graham when the $10,000 was being contributed each year.
“This is done through policies set right here on the council and some mandates from the state,” Crawford said. “Our tax money that we get from hotel/motel, a certain percentage has to be used for tourism. … That’s where this money goes. It’s not walking out somebody’s door. It’s going down there for good use.”
Crawford also took exception to the airing out of the issue on social media rather than taking the time to get the information from those involved.
“The damage has been done. It’s all over the media,” Crawford said. “This man (Graham) has been hurt, I have been hurt, and all the people on the committee have been hurt. It was brought up, put on Facebook, it exploded and here it goes. There’s no sense in this, non what so ever.”
Councilman Larry Black and others agreed that the social media aspect of the issue ignited matters in a negative way.
“I think I agree with a number of people here that you have made a mistake,” Black said. “I think this was handled the wrong way. Your post and your comments initiated on Facebook have kind of led us into where we are now.”
Black also stated feels as though Millwood involves himself too much in work that should be handled by City Manager Dan Wright.
“You talk about the bad policy that the city has. …. I have a tremendous amount of confidence in the man sitting right there, which is our city manager,” Black said. “He has a lot of the responsibilities that you seem to take on that you feel like you’re accountable for.”
Councilman Randall Franks expressed his sadness with the ordeal as a whole and then motioned for the council to task the city attorney with drafting an apology letter to Graham and the 1890s Day Committee for negativity brought to them and the event.
The motion was approved 4-1, with Council member Kelly Bomar voting no. Bomar said he understands where Millwood was coming from in requesting the information as a representative of the city.
“I understand the outrage, but let’s not direct that outrage toward the wrong person,” Bomar wrote in his own blog after the meeting. “Be angry at the people on Facebook that slandered individuals, be angry at the news for manipulating the headline, and be angry at ourselves for never asking about the money.”
After the vote, both Millwood and Graham spoke again, and each seemed to want to move forward from the matter.
“It was my intent in the post to stop the questions of where the money goes,” Millwood said. “Perhaps in the short-term, it has perpetuated that as opposed to bring it to an end.”
Graham, in the mild-mannered fashion he’s known for, said the issue could have been resolved at any point over the past three decades.
“The reason no one in the city has any accounting information is because no one has ever asked for it. … No one has ever asked for it,” Graham said.
Graham added that he’s more than willing to divulge the financial information for the organization moving forward.
“I’m perfectly fine if you guys appoint somebody. …. We don’t mind y’all looking at where everything is spent. It’s fine,” Graham said. “As far as the accounting and all of this, nobody has ever asked me for any of this information. We have the records, contrary to what some of this Facebook stuff says. My secretary that handles this is on vacation. But when she gets back, we’ll be happy to show you guys whatever you want.”