CVB In Turmoil Over New Exec Director Hiring; Bureau Lawyer Seeking Documents, Answers From Sonoma County Tourism (CA); Lawsuits A Possibility
What started out as an effort to revitalize the Saugatuck-Douglas Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) by hiring a new executive director has turned into a conundrum for CVB officials. Last week the CVB Board announced the appointment of Ken Fischang, 58, - who served the past 11-plus years as president/CEO of the Sonoma County Tourism bureau in Santa Rosa, California - as its new executive director.
Fischang was selected to replace the CVB’s former executive director Felicia Fairchild who left the CVB when her contract expired at the end of 2016.
Fischang was identified as a potential candidate by the executive search firm Michigan Society of Association Executives (MASE) and its president Cheryl Ronk. MASE was hired by the CVB for a reported $20,000 to conduct the executive search.
But the CVB’s effusive fanfare that accompanied Fischang’s appointment announcement last week took a decidely problematic turn when CVB officials learned in the past few days that just prior to his appointment, Fischang had been placed on administrative leave by the Sonoma County Tourism bureau’s Board of Directors on May 10 due to an investigation that turned up reported financial improprieties involving expense accounting and other financial issues involving Fischang and members of his staff.
On May 11, Fischang received a Letter of Intent to hire him from Saugatuck-Douglas CVB Board Chair Andrew Milauckas which Fischang signed and returned with his acceptance.
The following day - May 12 - just two days after being placed on administrative leave, Fischang resigned his position with Sonoma.
According to several local CVB officials and members:
* neither before nor after he accepted the Saugatuck-Douglas CVB position did Fischang disclose to the Saugatuck-Douglas CVB leaders he had been placed on administrative leave by Sonoma County Tourism board members;
* Fischang did not tell Saugatuck-Douglas CVB officials he was under investigation/audit by Sonoma County government officials for alleged financial irregularities involving him and his Sonoma staff;
* that he resigned shortly before Sonoma County Supervisors were set to meet on the Sonoma County Tourism’s contract with the county and to discuss the findings in the ongoing financial investigation/audit of Fischang’s and his staff’s alleged financial improprieties; or the results of that probe.
Efforts to reach Fischang for comment have been unsuccessful.
On Monday and Tuesday (May 22 & 23), Saugatuck-Douglas CVB officials - after learning of the new developments with Sonoma involving Fischang - met in emergency meetings to discuss the new, problematic developments.
They also contacted the CVB’s attorney to discuss what legal issues, if any, might now possibly impact the CVB and themselves personally.
The local CVB’s lawyer was instructed to contact Sonoma officials and MASE to learn more about what actually has and is happening involving Fischang and obtain confirmation of the information involving him with Sonoma. The lawyer reportedly will attempt to obtain documents from Sonoma officials, including any severance agreement Fischang may have signed upon his resignation; any audit/investigation reports that may be currently available involving Fischang and his former Sonoma County Tourism bureau; and any statements from Sonoma County and/or Sonoma County Tourism bureau officials involving Fischang.
The attorney also is expected to share what legal exposure (possible future lawsuits, if any) local CVB officials or the CVB may face either from Fischang and/or Ronk/MASE in connection with this ongoing matter.
A final decision by Saugatuck-Douglas CVB officials over whether Fischang will be formally hired for the executive director’s position is expected after their attorney provides them the results of his ongoing information-gathering efforts.
The Local Observer has also learned that the CVB Board offered its executive director’s job to Fischang in a formal Letter of Intent last week, despite the fact that MASE and Ronk had not yet completed its vetting of Fischang or issued/submitted its final written report on Fischang’s suitability for the position.
That decision has resulted in questions by some CVB members as to why the CVB officials felt it necessary to expedite the job offer to Fischang without final clearance by Ronk/MASE.
Earlier in the process, Ronk had, however, in response to local CVB questions, verbally reported that Fischang appeared to be a good candidate for the position based on her then-ongoing, yet not completed review. Ronk at that time was also apparently unaware of the Sonoma County investigation/audit into Fischang’s and his Sonoma County Tourism staff’s handling of its internal finances - including questionable expense reimbursement vouchers and payments and overall handing of bureau funds.
Local CVB officials Monday and Tuesday met to discuss whether to rescind their job offer to Fischang (there is a clause in the Letter of Intent to hire him that he had to pass a background check), hire him anyway; find out from Ronk why she/MASE had not known about the Sonoma County Toursim financial investigation; and instruct their lawyer to conduct his own information-gathering effort.
Also being discussed by - and of major concern to - local CVB officials is how this new development might impact the CVB’s ongoing efforts to convince its members to vote to increase the current 2% fee of its lodging rental fees to the CVB to 5%. Those fees are used by the CVB for marketing the local area to help promote tourism and thus increase business for its members.
The Saugatuck-Douglas CVB is one of only three CVBs in Michigan to collect 2% fees from its members. All others have upped their fees to 5% to better compete for the competitive tourism dollars.
An unofficial survey of a few members of the CVB conducted by The Local Observer this week found rising concern over the CVB officials’ handling of the Fischang vetting and job offer - and the $20,000+ agreement to pay for the executive search (that payment reportedly has not been made yet to MASE) - and a concern now over increasing the current 2% “heads-in-beds fee” to support the local CVB.
Members of the local CVB Board and CVB members who make up the CVB’s executive search committee includes: Chair Andrew Milauckas, Jane VerPlank, Anne Mathieu, Rob Goeke, Pat Lion (all board members) and CVB members Catherine Simon, Mike Jones and Mark Mikolitis.
Jones and Mikolitis, according to several CVB members, have been the leading voices behind supporting the hiring of Fischang up and until the new information surfaced of Fischang being placed on administrative leave last week and his resignation two days later in connection with the Sonoma County audit of him and his bureau.
A call to Cheryl Ronk of MASE Wednesday morning for comment about her company’s role in researching Fischang was not returned by press time.
In a written response to a request for comment by The Local Observer, the CVB Board - with approval by its attorney - issued the following statement Wednesday:
“The Bureau is aware of what has been published in California about a possible candidate for our Executive Director position. We had been doing our due diligence before the newspaper publication, and we continue with that process.
“We hope to make a decision in the near future when we have all of the information we feel we need.
“Out of respect for the process we’ve started and for the candidate, we are not prepared to say more at this time.”