Rick Mirabito, the State Representative whose territory covers the City of Williamsport, has committed a cardinal sin. Rick apparently has dared to question the operation of the Visitors Bureau of the Williamsport/Lycoming Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber is a powerful group in this area, consisting of the major players in the business community and their powerful allies in government. It is a group not to be questioned lightly, and when they are the repercussions can be devastating for an elected representative.
My knowledge of the Visitors Bureau operations began several years ago when Rick Mirabito contacted me and asked me what I knew about the Visitors Bureau. He indicated that he had many constituents asking questions about where the Visitors Bureau gets its money from, how it spends it, and why certain businesspeople with good connections get preferential loans. Rick, who always worries about doing the right thing, asked my advice as to whether these questions were within his jurisdiction as a State Representative.
My response was that if the tax was authorized by state government, if the spending of the tax money is permitted by the legislature, and if there are answers that constituents are unable to obtain then as a State Representative Rick Mirabito has an obligation to ask questions. One of the questions that many citizen businesspeople in the area have been asking is why they cannot utilize the Visitors Bureau for advertising unless they are a member of the Chamber of Commerce.
Representative Mirabito has committed the unpardonable crime of asking the right questions of powerful people. Woe to the elected official who does not remember his place among the wealthy puppeteers. They will cut the strings without so much as a moment’s hesitation.
The marriage of the hotel tax to the Chamber and the Visitors Bureau is an odd mixture of government and private interest. Approximately a year ago, I was approached by several very well respected businesspeople in this community. They wanted to know what the legal structure was of the Visitors Bureau and how it was related to the county and the Chamber. These businesspeople also had questions and they were frustrated by what they saw as efforts by the Chamber of Commerce to control both the tax money and the Visitors Bureau which was supposed to utilize that tax money.
After some work, I rendered a legal opinion that the relationships were fuzzy at best, and that the County Commissioners, together with the Visitors Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce, needed to develop a structure that was transparent, in keeping with the legislative enactments, and that it did not have even a hint of favoritism. Whether the Chamber, a private group, has the right to control tax monies that flow through to the Visitors Bureau pursuant to statute has been an item of hot debate in the county. It is well within the province of a state legislature to control the flow of this money from the taxpayer, through to government, and finally how it is utilized by private groups that benefit from these expenditures. It is not enough to say that 10% of the money pays administrative costs and the rest is used for a variety of ambiguous categories. The people and media of Lycoming County certainly understand that where preferential low cost loans are given to some businesspeople for special projects and not to others, there are going to be questions that are asked. The Representatives who ask those questions should not be criticized or condemned because they may have stepped on someone’s sacred territory.
For anyone to tell Representative Mirabito that he has more important things to do in Harrisburg than to answer constituent questions about the money trail strikes me as an attempt to silence a Representative who may be on to something. The real issue here is not whether Representative Mirabito has been annoying in asking difficult questions and refusing to be pushed around on this issue but rather where does all this money come from, how is it used and where does it go? These seem to be questions that we elect principled people like Rick Mirabito to ask.
If the Visitors Bureau, as the press asserts, is audited every year, how come we have not seen those audits? What do those audits consist of? Who are getting the big loans, for what and why? Is the Visitors Bureau tax a personal, private privilege of a few businesspeople in Williamsport or is it being administered in a way that encourages development regardless of political or personal contacts?
It is a mistake for an august organization such as the Chamber to utilize its press contacts to attack inquiring minds. As a public official myself, I must always remember that our ultimate job is to answer the hard questions that the taxpayers have a right to ask. If we shrink from those questions by using professional and press contacts to threaten elected representatives, we do not advance the cause of the people.
I have known Rick Mirabito ever since we both clerked for the Hon. Malcolm Muir. He has that Muir quality of conservative aggressiveness. Rick Mirabito, like Judge Muir, demands that government be accountable in a way that surprises and sometimes upsets the comfortable association that exists between big money and big government. Rick Mirabito seems to have learned well from his mentor.
This is the time for the citizens of Williamsport and Lycoming County to rally around Representative Mirabito and to demand answers to the questions he has been asking on behalf of all of us.
Rieders, Travis, Dohrmann, Mowrey, Humphrey & Waters
161 West Third Street
Williamsport, PA 17701
(570) 323-8711 (telephone)
(570) 323-4192 (facsimile)
Cliff Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, is Past President of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association and a member of the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority. None of the opinions expressed necessarily represent the views of these organizations.