At today's City Council meeting, the Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce is expected to answer 18 questions about its spending practices and to provide an audit to the council.
Uncertainty about the business practices of the Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce may mean no taxpayer funding from the city regardless of how Chamber officials answer 18 questions from the City Council, some council members said Monday.
"There's enough of a cloud that I wouldn't appropriate anything," said Council Chairwoman Pam Ladd. "I think the 18 questions were the tip of the iceberg."
The questions were included in a review of the Chamber by City Auditor Stan Sewell that pointed out possible financial mismanagement, questionable land acquisitions and large salaries and travel expenses for employees. The Chamber's role is to help minority-based businesses within the community and to encourage minority-business growth.
Last week, in the days after the release of the audit, which was triggered by a Times Free Press investigation, the council told Chamber officials to provide answers to the questions - in writing - at today's council meeting. The Chamber was also asked to provide a current audit of its finances.
Since the release of the review, Multicultural Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sherrie Gilchrist has not returned repeated phone calls. A person in the front area of the Chamber's 535 Chestnut St. office told a reporter who stopped by that Gilchrist was on a conference call and could not talk. Photos of local black civil rights leaders hang on the walls in the spacious office that the Chamber pays $47,000 a year to rent.
Ladd said she told chamber board members they would not be brought before a committee meeting or the regularly scheduled board meeting to address the council. She said if they do address the council, it would be only if a council member requests them to speak or at the end of the meeting when the public is allowed to address the council.
Council members individually could ask questions of the Chamber, she said, but for the most part, the council already has heard the group's arguments for getting $75,000 in funding from the city.
"We've heard what we need to hear," she said.
Councilman Peter Murphy said Monday the council could always appropriate the money later if the audit's questions are answered. The money comes from a special economic development fund and is there if needed, he said.
But the council doesn't have to give the money directly to the Chamber, Murphy said. It could be appropriated to another entity that could do the same job the Chamber has done in the past, he said.
"I don't think we're there yet," he said.
The council is expected to vote on the last piece of the 2011-12 fiscal year budget tonight, including funds to local agencies. The money for the Chamber was taken out of the budget weeks ago after questions arose after the organization gave contradictory statements in federal and local financial documents.
Councilman Manny Rico said the answers provided would not change his mind.
"There's no way I can vote to give them money," he said. "It's throwing good money to bad."
Contact staff writer Cliff Hightower at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6480. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/CliffHightower.