Did NSSTA move the fall regional from Arizona due to SB 1070?

This isn't an easy blog post to write and I intend to supplement it with some interviews and video commentary next week, but I've been sitting on this issue and information for the better part of four weeks now and it's time to roll it out.

The question I pose to my readers is whether or not the NSSTA board and leadership cancelled the previously scheduled Fall regional at Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale, Arizona and moved it to Las Vegas, NV as a result of concerns about the Arizona Immigration law and possible fall out with Democratic allies and Hispanic members of the association. It is also still being rumored that there was a cost or fee for this change and that this is being papered over in the process.

I will preface my commentary on this with the fact that despite a productive and frank conversation with NSSTA director Eric Vaughn, who assured me that there was no fee paid to move the conference, I am still being contacted on a regular basis from sources who either say they have been told their was a cost to move it, or that the records and accounting due to the termination of Smith Bucklin, the previous management company, are so vague and jumbled that it is impossible to determine whether or not a fee was paid or not.

What I know, what has been expressed to me on the record by NSSTA leadership, or has been told to me by reliable sources is the following:

1. That NSSTA originally scheduled the meeting to be held this fall in Scottsdale, Arizona at the Talking Stick Resort and Casino, a recently completed entertainment, hotel and golf complex that is owned by the Salt River Pima tribe and is immediately adjacent to Scottsdale. It has a brand new conference center, two golf courses, casino and is about 15 mins from PHX airport and 5 minutes from Old Town Scottsdale night clubs and entertainment. In short, a great location and would have likely had a good turn out of membership and this meeting was announced to membership and was on the NSSTA site earlier this year. Talking Stick

2. At or around the time of the annual meeting, the SB 1070 bill was pending signature by the Gov. of Arizona, but had not been signed. Further, the decision to terminate the associations deal with Smith Bucklin had been finalized and to say the association and board was in a state of flux due to the transition of leadership would be an understatement.

3. At or around this same time, it was revealed that the Fall regional meeting had been scheduled the same week as the CSSC class and program, creating a conflict for those who wish to do both events. Apparently this has also happened in past years and it was promised that it would not occur in future years, so it needed to be addressed.

4. It also was becoming clear that the Arizona immigration law, SB 1070, was going to be a very hot issue with Democrats and Hispanic law makers and that it might be difficult get speakers to attend the Arizona event due to animosity over the law, or possibly injure our relationship with certain Democratic lawmakers.

5. It was decided that as there was "no cancellation fee paid" to get out of the Talking Stick contract, that it would be wise in the political climate and with the CSSC course conflict, to look for an alternate site for the regional and not proceed with the Scottsdale meeting as scheduled or to reschedule an Arizona meeting while changing dates to accommodate the CSSC agenda.

6. The NSSTA BOD met on July 7-9, issuing a statement in an email to members that they are being careful with association resources, a renewed commitment to membership and in a surprise to me, that the association would work down it's debt, something I, and I'm sure other members, didn't know we had.

6. Membership was sent an email survey asking where they would like the fall meeting to be held, with Las Vegas being the majority choice, and as of yesterday we got another email from NSSTA announcing a hotel meeting deal with Bellagio in Las Vegas, NV for the fall regional. This despite the fact NSSTA had it's fall meeting in LV last year as well. This original survey email made zero mention of the Arizona cancellation, reasons for the change and of course did not include Arizona as a convention location choice for members to vote on. If the change was about the CSSC issue, why not just say it and tell the members?

So, based on conversations and public emails of the board, it is the position of the NSSTA board and leadership apparently that:

  • Yes they had scheduled this for Scottsdale but didn't realize it conflicted with CSSC.
  • SB 1070 had not been signed yet so any decision to cancel the AZ meeting location at or around the time of the annual meeting is coincidental and that there had been no complaints by Hispanic members of the association about the Arizona location or meeting.
  • There was no cancellation fee paid to terminate the Talking Stick deal, which is a rare event in conference planning as almost all hotels charge some fee, but there was no contract signed with Talking Stick so there was no fee due.
  • There was no reason to reschedule in AZ as it might needlessly antagonize legislative allies or limit our speaker choices.
  • There was no reason to communicate to members the reason for the changes, but that an email asking where they would like the new meeting was sufficient. 
  • There is apparently no reason to address the rapidly circulating rumors that this was about SB 1070, but to stay silent on it and proceed forward.

SB 1070 Protest

Ok, my thoughts and commentary on this, now that I have laid out what is public and has been said on the record or will be the likely response by NSSTA leadership and board members on this topic.

  • While the board has addressed this to what ever degree they feel they need to, rumors continue to pour into my voicemail, email and blog sites that a cancellation fee was paid, that the site was changed as a result of the objection of a few members over the Immigration Bill and that the records and accounting in the transition from Smith Bucklin to Eric Vaughn are so disorganized that it is almost impossible to ferret out the truth. There is growing discord and rumors among membership that a political decision was made with out consulting members, that a fee was paid to cancel in order to placate some unhappy membership and that the transition of management companies is being used as a convenient cover for not being able to allow for an audit trail that is sufficient to prove to these upset members and silent rumor mongers, that in fact no fee was paid.
  • I have been asked to run for a board seat for the last three terms, which I have declined each year due to my impossible work load with LBN and Wahlstrom & Associates, so I have nothing but respect for the volunteer board and the work they do. That said, our association is clearly suffering for the decision to hire Smith Bucklin, is paying a cost for terminating them and the lack of records, contracts and accounting trail to prove or disprove this story is alarming. We all are aware of the appalling status of member billing records of the last two years and I applaud the members working so hard to clean this up. However, the apparent disaster of Smith Bucklin now has us in a situation where Eric Vaughn and the BOD seemingly can't provide a simple paper trail of any agreement or communication with Talking Stick, cancellation of the agreement or chart of accounts and disbursements so as to dispel these rumors. Our board and leadership should never have been put in this position and I suspect the rumors will continue to simmer until they can provide a clear documentary trail proving their position. 
  • The lack of communication on this issue to members up front was a mistake that continues to compound as rumors and misinformation continue to swirl. NSSTA leadership has got to make a clean break with past practices of treating membership as dull, pathetic children who need a pat on the head every now and then, while a chosen few pull the levers of power, make decisions and dribble out information in controlled sound bites or emails. As we watch our association do a slow motion train wreck slide into a deficit position financially, it is clear events such as this make members feel increasingly detached from the mission of NSSTA. We don't need the Politburo, we need a House of Representatives and some day light on how things are run. I have full and complete confidence that Eric Vaughn and the current BOD will move us in that direction.
  • I am taking Eric Vaughn and others at their word that the events as outlined are what happened. That said, this move smacks of politics at it's core and that NSSTA was and is fearful of offending a political party or ethnic groups opposed to a state law in Arizona. My concern is that at what point did NSSTA get into the moral outrage business? This is the proverbial slippery slope as this is sure to antagonize the 65% of the population that supports the approach of Arizona on this issue. What if other states enact similar legislation, such as is being considered in FL, TX, PA and elsewhere, do we boycott them as well? It is insanity for a professional organization such as ours to appear to take a position for or against any state bill that doesn't directly impact our core product, mission or method. What's next, abortion? Gun Control? Drug legalization?

In summary, as NSSTA has for obvious reasons decided to stay silent on this issue, unless of course, a member asks directly. I think it is important that the information be moved out of the closet and into the realm of discussion and put to rest, or this problem is only going to fester and get worse. If I am getting emails, voice mails and questions from members on this, I can only imagine the other conversations that are going on around the industry.

With that in mind, it is my suggestion that if a member has a concern, that they contact leadership directly, as the BOD has now had time to meet, discuss and review this issue and I would assume you will get a reasonably consistent response and outline of facts if you simply ask. I believe the termination of Smith Bucklin was long over due and corrects a serious mistake, but we can't dump our problems in their lap. The association belongs to the members, we have the ultimate responsibility for what NSSTA does or doesn't do and the method in which it operates.

Instead of grumbling about it, pick up a phone, send an email and ask for the facts from the board and leadership. I think we have an excellent board of directors, solid leadership from Eric Vaughn and that they would welcome and appreciate honest, constructive questions from members on this and other issues. We all have a stake in NSSTA's future, but lets learn from past mistakes and start running this as a more transparent, accountable entity so we can all support it with out hesitation or reservations.

Posted on July 22, 2010 .