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OPEN UP City needs to review, inform public on festival

Paducah's Barbecue on the River is a tremendous asset for the community. It is beginning to rival the annual AQS quilting convention and show in drawing power and is still growing. No one with any measure of civic pride wants to see harm come to the event.

To that end, it is somewhat understandable that after a nasty dispute broke out between the non-profit that runs the festival and one of its more significant beneficiaries, the Paducah Symphony Orchestra, Mayor Gayle Kaler decided to take the two to the woodshed and make them settle their differences.

At issue was a dispute over proceeds from a beer and wine garden the symphony operated at the festival under contract with the organizers. The effort generated as much as $30,000 for the symphony in past years, with the festival organizers receiving a $1,000 base plus 10 percent of the net proceeds. Earlier this year the festival organizers canceled the agreement with the symphony, alleging a contract violation.

Kaler called the parties into a closed-door meeting last Tuesday. After 90 minutes an agreement was hammered out in which the festival committee said it would propose new contract terms and the symphony would be given right of first refusal on the contract. The parties emerged, but did not comment. Rather, the city's public information officer put out a press release saying there would be no public comments by the parties about the resolution and the press release would be the "final word" on the matter.

Again, in the context of a parent taking two brawling kids to the woodshed, we can understand the parent, once the matter is settled, not wanting to hear any more about it. But this is different and we think the city's approach through the press release sends the wrong message. Although the festival technically is now operated by an independent 501 (c) (4) non-profit, the entanglement between the festival committee and local government is deep.

As a story in Thursday's Paducah Sun noted, the city last year provided $142,067.65 in in-kind services to the event. That's public money.

Stories last week also noted that City Commissioner Carol Gault is a member of the festival committee. An interesting quirk of Kentucky's Open Records Act is that it includes in its definition of agency "every state or local legislative officer." So Commissioner Gault is an "agency" under the law. To the extent she has records relating to the operations of the festival, those are public records.

It was likewise reported last week that in years past the festival operated under the 501 (c) (3) tax-exempt status of Paducah Main Street, which was clearly a public agency. All records relating to the festival's operation in those years are thus public records.

Finally, the festival committee itself currently is a 501 (c) (4) non-profit. Certain elements of its IRS filings relating to its income and disbursements are likewise public record - except that the committee has apparently failed to make those filings the past couple of years and its non-profit status is currently revoked.

There's a saying in journalism that sunshine is the best disinfectant and that's our point here. We can understand the city not wanting controversy to tarnish the festival, but issuing gag orders is not the way to go about it. Issues emerged during the very public disagreement between the symphony and the festival organizers that aren't just going to go away because the parties stop talking to the media.

The city may not directly operate the festival, but that doesn't mean it has no oversight responsibility. It has the right and the responsibility to examine how the event has been handled over the years, see where the money goes, and make sure appropriate steps are being taken to protect the tax-exempt status of the money raised. And it needs to let the public in on this. If the city is going to put $142,000 a year into the event, it has the obligation to assure the taxpayers the event is being properly run.

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