The Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board has approved a $200,000 annual contract for Kathryn Brackenridge to serve as its executive director, raising eyebrows from some people concerned with how the contract was awarded.
The $200,000 is roughly $75,000 more a year than previous Executive Director Kate Sollitt’s last contract with the Travel and Tourism Board. And it puts the pay Brackenridge will receive as a contractor — an amount intended as a $154,000 base salary with an additional 30% for benefits, per Travel and Tourism Board members — in line with the salaries of some of the highest-paid government employees in Teton County.
Teton County School District No. 1 Superintendent Gillian Chapman’s salary without benefits is roughly $197,000, County Administrator Alyssa Watkins’ is roughly $167,000, and Town Manager Larry Pardee’s is roughly $164,000.
The Travel and Tourism Board’s fiscal year 2022 budget is roughly $6.6 million.
The $200,000 rate, Board Chair Cory Carlson and Treasurer Brian Gallagher said, is intended to be competitive among tourism professionals in other communities and informed by compensation studies commissioned elsewhere.
But Sen. Mike Gierau, D-Teton, worries the approval of Brackenridge’s contract came amid a “shocking lack of transparency.” He’s concerned about how it was discussed in public meetings this fall.
“We want to be more transparent,” Cory Carlson said in response. Carlson’s the chair of the board, which allocates 60% of the funds collected by Teton County’s 2% lodging tax.
“This is a public board,” Carlson said. “Transparency and collaboration with the stakeholders is paramount. It’s not a group of individuals trying to do their own thing.”
At issue is two public meetings in September and October in which the board considered and approved Brackenridge as executive director.
The board does not hire employees and instead retains its director as a contractor. Sollitt has served as its contracted executive director since May 2013 but is not returning after serving for the last year at the board’s request.
The Travel and Tourism Board is charged with marketing Jackson Hole as a destination in the winter and off seasons and has recently started to pivot towards managing visitation in the valley’s increasingly busy summer seasons. Tourism board members said the increasing summer workload is part of the reason for the increased contract value.
With Sollitt prepared to leave, board members have gone through two cycles of attempting to contract a new executive director. The first ended after the board wasn’t able to pay top candidates what they wanted, and town and county electeds rebuffed the board’s request to hire employees rather than contractors.
The second concluded on Oct. 7 when board members voted 5-1 to approve a contract with Brackenridge. Mary Bess, recently appointed by the Jackson Town Council and Teton County Board of County Commissioners, objected with concerns about the dollar value.
But the grief about transparency started in a previous, Sept. 28 special meeting where the Travel and Tourism Board considered “approval to move forward” on contracts for the new executive director, a new communications manager, and a retainer for Sollitt during the transition. It did not include details about any of the contracts on its agenda.
While board members identified Sue Muncaster’s firm Teton Strong as the possible recipient of the communications manager contract, and Sollitt as recipient of the retainer, they did not identify Brackenridge in relation to the executive director post. Instead, materials called her “candidate A.” Officials said that was because she had not yet told her employer she was vying for the position.
That concerned people like Gierau and Commissioner Mark Barron. The commissioner said at the Sept. 28 meeting that his concern was “simply that we’re moving contracts forward without any public knowledge of what you’re really doing.”
Sollitt clarified then that the votes during that Sept. 28 meeting were only to allow the county attorney to negotiate a contract with the potential contractors. And, at the next meeting on Oct. 7, Chief Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery clarified that board had only been considering a “notice of award,” not an actual contract. The contracts were laid out in full at the October meeting. But Gingery acknowledged that the board should not have referred to Brackenridge as “candidate A” because her proposal was — and is — public record.
That meeting also got a bit testy after Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Anna Olson asked how the board would pay $75,000 more than it had budgeted for a new executive director — $125,000 — in the current fiscal year.
“I’d rather not have this turned into public Q&A because the folks on the call have jobs, and it’s the middle of the workday,” Gallagher said in response. It “shouldn’t be an issue, and we have unallocated reserves to tap into for any overages in that line item.”
Gierau took issue with that.
“If you’re too damn busy to answer questions, then maybe you’re too busy to do that job,” he told the News&Guide. He plans to get lunch with some Travel and Tourism Board members later this week to discuss his concerns.
Gingery acknowledged that the process was “messy.” He wasn’t in the Sept. 28 meeting because he was at a Teton District Board of Health Meeting.
“But at the end of the day,” Gingery said, “the approval of the contracts was in a public meeting and done correctly.”
Brackenridge’s first day as the Travel and Tourism Board’s executive director will be Nov. 8. Sollitt’s term officially ended on Sept. 30, though she’s sticking around to help with the transition for $125 an hour with a not-to-exceed contract capped at $20,000.
Carlson, for his part, didn’t characterize the debacle about transparency as a “learning moment.”
“I take it as a collaborative moment of recognizing that there’s opportunity,” he said.