Arts Funding Debate Reaches New Heights

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One College Station city councilmember described their over-three-hour workshop session Thursday as excruciating, another as a rollercoaster, and a third said they needed to take a bath when the mudslinging was all said and done.

It began innocently enough, another simple budget meeting that once again turned into an arts funding fiasco. With soon-to-be-former Arts Council Director P. David Romei leading the charge, arts supporters demanded funding for the coming year. Others came forward to say the arts council was not fully transparent with its accounting practices, which drew a flood of emotion from many who say the arts council is among the most transparent.

That emotion spilled over to the city council when Nancy Berry passionately denounced Romei, saying he had politicized the arts. Fellow councilmember Susan Lancaster responded to Berry's statement, saying Romei has the right, as a citizen, to dig into politics.

"When a sitting councilmember attacks an individual citizen, I think that it is a deplorable situation," said Lancaster.

After a flurry of motions and amendments ran the funding debate to three hours and 20 minutes, the storm calmed with this decision from the council.

Funding for this year will total $440,000, more than the city staff had recommended ($340,000), but less than the arts council had requested ($490,000). $200,000 of that will come from hotel-motel tax, the rest from the general fund.

In addition, the arts council will still be paid monthly, but every quarter, their reports will be examined. If anything is out of order, funding would be cut.

Councilmember Ron Gay recused himself from the vote, which ended up 5-1 in favor of the $440,000. In the last meeting, Gay's affiliation with Scott and White was brought up. The clinic is affiliated in part with the arts council, but Gay works for the memorial hospital. He had recused himself from a previous vote on the issue, and did so again Thursday for the sake of consistency. However, he produced a document from Scott and White proving which division employed him. City Attorney Harvey Cargill told Gay the letter was good enough to remove any doubts of conflict in future votes.

Gay said if he hadn't recused himself Thursday, he would have voted in favor of the $440,000.

"Dr. Romei has done incredible things for the arts here," said Berry when asked about her statement during the workshop. "My concern is that the arts have become political, and that's unfortunate because the arts are for everyone."

Romei responded, saying, "Any organization, whether it's a hospital or the arts or a football team, that receives money from a political entity, by its very nature, is political, so to criticize a fish for swimming in water, when that's what a fish does."

Romei announced his resignation two weeks ago, and will officially be out as arts council director effective October 31.

Of the $440,000 for the council this year, $100,000 will be allocated for arts affiliates.