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Wednesday, May 7,2014

Common Ground’s darker side

by Mickey Hirten
Let me start with this: I like Lansingīs Common Ground festival. City Pulse likes Common Ground.

Organizers consider it the highlight of the cityīs summer, and the crowds that attend – about 55,000 last year – agree. Since the festival began in 2000, Lansing has spent more than $1 million on Common Ground and itīs worth it. Just like the ballpark. The city allocates tax dollars to subsidize minor league baseball, the Lansing Center and other small events. Expenses, to be sure, but better characterized as investments in the quality of life — place making — which is reshaping the city, beginning to make it “cool.”

But there is something irregular in the way Lansing finances its share of the festivalīs expenses. It allocates its annual contribution to the Lansing Entertainment & Public Facilities Authority, a public and accountable entity, which in turn slides the money to Center Park Productions, a nonprofit organization which exists solely to run the festival. And do it very secretly.

Odder still is the role of LEPFAīs president and chief executive officer, Scott Keith. Most of the time he runs LEPFA, which as City of Lansing entity is bound by the Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act requirements of most public bodies. That is, until he transforms himself into the president of Center Park Productions, not a city agency. At this point, what he does and how Center Park Production operates is shielded from public scrutiny.

As a nonprofit, Center Park Productions must have a board of directors. In theory, Keith, as Center Parkīs president, works for the board. But not this board. It is stacked with senior LEPFA employees who work for Keith, among them his vice presidents for finance, administration, food and beverage, and sales and marketing. There is one “outside director,” a vice president of the Greater Lansing Convention and Visitorīs Bureau. Considering the lack of transparency surrounding Center Park, wouldnīt it be better to have some independent directors on the board?

At City Pulse, we had no idea that this was how Common Ground was structured. Our interest in the festival started with what we thought were simple questions: Is the festival profitable? And does the city really need to contribute to it every year?

This seems like a reasonable line of inquiry, the basic watchdog work that the public expects of news organizations. We posed the question to city officials, Mayor Bernero and others, and discovered that no one knew anything meaningful about the festivalīs finances. We asked members of the LEPFA board, including finance chairman Tim Kaltenbach, the same question and got the same “donīt really know” answer. Kaltenbach, in fact, said he has never seen a financial report on Common Ground, which Keith denies. But that the two canīt even agree on basic financial reporting illustrated the degree of secrecy surrounding the festival.

Keith, of course, knows. But heīs not saying, because as president of Center Park Productions, he doesnīt have to.

To be clear, there is no suggestion that there is anything dishonest or unethical happening at either LEPFA or Center Park Productions. The nonprofit shell, in fact, shields the city from liability if there were lawsuit. My suspicion is that the festival is well run and likely produces a small and reasonable profit for the Meridian Entertainment Group, the Old Town based company that actually runs the festival.

Kevin Meyer is president of Meridian Entertainment, which promotes festivals and other events throughout the United States and abroad. Common Ground is his hometown show. You want a nice event for the neighbors. Meyer’s company has assumed tasks once done by the city in part because he says he can do them better and cheaper. He runs festivals year round; the city does it once a year.

Lately, Common Ground has scaled back slightly with fewer name acts and one fewer show days.

But it still gets some great acts and I hope for a successful festival with bigger crowds than last year. It would be great to add days and stages. There were some memorable shows at the old City Market stage across the river; Jimmy Cliff and his 11-piece reggae band was simply unbelievable.

But, honestly, so is the way the city finances its share of the festival. It needs to open the books and if there confidential information, make the case for non-disclosure. It would be devastating for Common Ground if it were discovered that the finances were mismanaged or even worse, money was being embezzled. Unlikely, of course, But then isnīt it always shocking to learn that longtime, trusted employees have been skimming funds.

Just open the books. Itīs about time.

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