Cedar Rapids Mayor responds to Newbo Evolve fallout, defends city

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart defended the city of Cedar Rapids' handling of the Newbo Evolve fallout, including the closed-door process in which the city decided not to bail out the group and its vendors.

Hart called it unfair to blame the city of Cedar Rapids for the failure of Newbo Evolve. Hart pointed out that Go Cedar Rapids is separate from the city. Hart multiple times pointed to misinformation from Go Cedar Rapids Executive Director Aaron McCreight leading up to Newbo Evolve. The Go Cedar Rapids Board said McCreight mislead them on ticket sales and sponsorship values that hid the true financial struggle the event was facing.

City Council member Scott Overland is on the board and recently promoted Assistant City Manager Angie Charipar served as city liaison but Hart said their roles on the board were separate from their duties with the city.

"They don't come anywhere near controlling the organization of that board," Hart said in response.

Mayor Hart also defended the closed-door meetings that led the city council to decide not to bail out Go Cedar Rapids, a move that would have at least partially repaid vendors.

"We were on a really short time frame, we didn't get a final proposal until the 28th of September," Hart said.

At that point, Hart said city council members were invited to small, private meetings with Go Cedar Rapids to hear the details of the plan. That is a move the Iowa Public Information Board and Iowa Freedom of Information Council describe as legal but "against the spirit" of Iowa's Open Meetings law. But Hart said he did not agree with the description that the council made a decision in secret.

"It was clear there was not support for taxpayer dollars to pay for ongoing operations and the significant debt that had been incurred through Newbo Evolve," Hart said.

"That wasn't clear until we saw a proposal," Hart continued.

Hart indicated the plan, which was never made public, said that included Newbo Evolve renegotiating its debt, getting anticipated contracts and increasing its event fees. Even with that, Hart said city tax dollars would have made up the bulk of the bailout.

The Mayor acknowledged that the entire city had received a black eye from the failure of Newbo Evolve. That included when movie director John Waters, who spoke at Newbo Evolve, slammed the city in an interview with The Gazette because he was not paid his full amount for his appearance.

"I met John Waters during the event and he said 'you have a great city'", Hart said. "My understanding was he was supposed to be paid $30,000 and he was paid half of that up front. I hope if I am ever in his position that I will not try to drag an entire city down over $15,000."

For now, the city of Cedar Rapids is scheduled to vote Tuesday to spend $545,000 for Venuworks to carry out the functions Go Cedar Rapids had performed. Mayor Hart said he expects that to be a short-term solution with a new version of a convention and visitors board taking over that role in a year or two.

Hart said the current oversight for that type of funding is sufficient. That process includes an application that is reviewed by a committee of city staff and city council members, including Go Cedar Rapids board member Scott Overland. That process not require an audit as part of the application.

Hart did hint that the city will review what happened and possibly look to have more oversight with the next version of a convention and visitor's bureau.

"Maybe the scrutiny has softened a bit," Hart reflected. "I'm sure for at least the first few years, if not forever, when there is a new entity that is going to get significant dollars... we will want to see the budget more and have a little bit more sense of what the salaries are and what the expenses are. I think that happened years ago and maybe still does a little bit."