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TIME TO ACT City needs to step up, reassert festival control

Nearly 30 members of the 42 barbecue teams that participate in Paducah's Barbecue on the River Festival met earlier this week to form a council and seek representation on the board of directors of Barbecue on the River Inc., the entity that oversees the festival.

Then in a meeting that was moderated by a radio personality, they closed their gathering to the media. We sympathize with the stated goal, which was, according to radio host Shane Parker "â ¦ to shut down the negativity. We want to put a positive spin on things, because the fact of the matter is that this comes down to charities we raise money for."

But we'll also repeat a proverb we've advocated with regard to recent controversies that have dogged the festival - sunlight is the best disinfectant. We think a public airing and understanding of the concerns and suggestions of team members would have been helpful to all involved.

For their part the barbecuers want a say in how the festival is run. Susie Coiner, who heads the three-member Barbecue on the River Inc. board, says she is receptive to adding a board position to represent the barbecuers. Prior to the media being turned away, some in the group of team members protested that one seat on the board was not enough representation. But we think it is reasonable, unless the barbecuers' ultimate goal is to take control of the board, which we don't think is a good idea.

As for the board itself, we think there is a strong argument to be made that all of its meetings should be open to the public. In fact there is a strong argument to be made that the board is a public agency, subject to the meeting-notice provisions and other requirements of the Kentucky Open Meetings Law. The board is a spinoff from a public agency, Paducah Main Street Inc., and as part of that process it received $30,000 in city funds and $20,000 of equipment to operate the festival. The city also provided $142,000 in in-kind services to the festival last year, which exceeds the total revenue the committee itself derives from its operational role. There is just a lot of public money involved in Barbecue on the River Inc.'s activities. And that argues in favor of the board's meetings being open to the public.

At some point, the concerns of the barbecuers seem likely to be aired publicly anyway. If there are problems, we think they should simply put them out there in a responsible way - such as an open discussion with the festival board - and seek solutions, understanding that the best suggestions might come from members of the public who learn of concerns through the media.

We also continue to believe the city needs to consider re-taking ownership of the festival and the revenues it generates, and pay Barbecue on the River Inc. a flat management fee to operate the event. The city has been by far the largest investor in the event. The festival is second only to the American Quilter's Society show among the city's signature tourism events. Yet the city really doesn't have control of the event, which is now in turmoil.

We think it would be responsible for the city to reassert control, rather than attempt to serve as a mediator. The festival is an asset that must be protected and cultivated, and for that the happen the city needs to own it.

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