Unpacking Wilmington City Council's uproar over media criticism of Live Nation VIP seat policy
Tuesday night, the Wilmington City Council discussed the purchase of $14,000 worth of VIP seats at the Live Nation venue in Riverfront Park -- and scolded the press for criticizing the policy ahead of the council meeting.
When the city council agenda became available Friday afternoon, reporters at several outlets noticed two different items.
First -- the city was set to spend $14,000 on a VIP table at its own park. And second -- the policy for the use of those tickets explicitly gives city council members first dibs. They also limited ticket use to community and economic development, as well as employee recognition.
Funding for the VIP table was set to come from the general fund -- that is, taxpayer money.
WHQR reported on the new policy over the weekend, and WECT was working on a story Monday morning when council held its agenda review meeting.
During that meeting, council seemed aware of brewing criticism, both from the media and from the public. In addition, city staff told the council that such a policy and VIP box were not common in other cities.
“I don't know that we're ready to pass this... there should be a limit on how many times any specific council member can use it during the year. No council member can use it more than two or three times," Council Member Margaret Haynes said during the agenda review meeting.
Mayor Bill Saffo also wanted to change the policy so that he and other council members would buy their own tickets, but could still provide the free tickets to guests.
Less than 36 hours later, at Tuesday night’s regular city council meeting, both the policy and the funding mechanism had changed -- though those changes had not made it to the public agenda.
The new policy only allows the tickets to be used for “economic development,” and council members no longer get first crack at VIP seats on the public’s tab. Here’s Mayor Bill Saffo.
“Council members, because this was a big thing the other day, are going to pay for their own tickets. I don't think any one of us are asking for any free rides or any free tickets," Saffo said.
The city manager will be the sole guardian of the free tickets, and they will no longer be provided directly to city council members or city staff under the changed policy.
Interim City Manager Tony Caudle asked city council to delay the vote on spending, as the money was supposed to come from the revenue from the new park, which hasn’t come in yet.
“So what we would advocate is that we just delay payment for the box until such time as we receive the revenue from the first events that should be within the first quarter of this year," Caudle said.
Mayor Saffo made a point of repeatedly reiterating the distinction that this money was not "taxpayer money." What does that mean? The city later called it a "nuanced point," but acknowledged that while the money was not directly from taxes, because it came from rent from Live Nation, it was public money; the city also acknowledged that the revenue was generated from a venue that was funded by taxpayer money. Despite the mayor's insistence, it was — effectively — a distinction without a difference.
Later in Tuesday's meeting, it became clear that council had received emails and calls criticizing this use of public money. Still, Councilman Kevin Spears defended the spending.
“I just did the math. So the buyer population is around 123,000. And this box was $14,000 and you divide it — 14,000 by 123,000. That's around about 11 cents that the taxpayers pay — a grand total of 11 cents," Spears said.
Several council members took offense with the WECT and WHQR articles about the policy. Neil Anderson in particular took offense with a line in WECT’s article which gave an example of giving a ticket to a developer for “economic development.”
“It's just the insinuation that, that in the media bothers me. And letting it dictate policy... now if it was reported accurately. And everything in there was correct… from an apartment developer. That's not what we were talking about," Anderson said.
There’s nothing in the old or the new policy which forbids economic development from including real estate developers, who have often received public funds in the name of economic development in projects like State Street’s Galleria, East-West Partners’ River Place, and USAInvestCo’s North Waterfront.
Haynes added to Anderson's comments, suggesting that the coverage was intended to "sell newspapers and TV ads and stuff" and saying, "it's a shame that we've come to that, here. And, you know, hopefully, hopefully the press can rise to the occasion and report things more appropriately."
In a 5-2 vote, with Council Members Neil Anderson and Kevin O’Grady voting against, council members decided on the substitute ticket policy that immediately went into effect -- and to take no action on the funding of the season box.
A final vote on the funding of the season box will take place in the fall, once revenue from the first events at Riverfront park is received.
Below: The revised ticket policy