Council disbands the HOT committee, candidates file to run

MARFA — Marfa City Council unanimously voted to dissolve the Hotel Occupancy Tax committee that granted funds to local organizations to promote tourism. The move came after the council approved HOT Committee chair Deirdre Hisler’s resignation. In place of the committee, the council voted to form an in-house team to review grant applications.

Hisler tendered her resignation after she says it was clear to her that “after having gone through all the budget talks, that city leadership was moving towards taking the manner in which HOT moneys are allocated back to the way it was done in the past.” The council accepted her resignation, and then moved on to discussions about the future of the committee itself.

The city had taken back control of distributing historic preservation grants during the budget season last fall. Hisler agreed with the move, saying, “We as a community should take care of the buildings we own.”

“But I felt that there wasn’t much value given to a group of volunteer committee members that worked very hard to be very transparent and help all of our nonprofit and some of our for-profit individuals to receive those HOT moneys and bring more programming to Marfa – because that’s what truly puts heads in beds.”

At the council meeting, City Manager John Washburn said Tourism Director Minerva Lopez wasn’t getting any documentation and was being “left out of the loop.” Hisler disputed this after the meeting, saying Lopez was given the applications and meeting minutes via email, as they had been instructed to do.

It was during the meeting that HOT committee members learned the committee might be dissolved. Committee members had requested a meeting with staff, but it did not occur.

Washburn provided a memorandum to council members where he recommended that “all applications and requests occur during and as part of the annual budget adoption process.” He suggested in the meeting that the council instead grant 75 percent of the funds during the budget process and save 25 percent of HOT funds to be disbursed for smaller events throughout the year.

City Attorney Teresa Todd also noted that the HOT committee members had conflicts of interest, for which they repeatedly had to recuse themselves. Hisler said the committee had documented all recusals in the meeting minutes and shared it with the tourism director.

Councilmember Buck Johnston suggested an in-house review team that included the mayor, a council person, the tourism director and two seats for citizens to provide community involvement. But ultimately, Councilmember Raul Lara motioned to dissolve the committee and Councilmember Irma Salgado motioned to form a review board made up of Tourism Director Minerva Lopez, Mayor Manny Baeza and Councilmember Melendez.

Baeza is on the chamber of commerce and Natalie Melendez is an employee of Chinati, so the two will have to recuse themselves during discussions about Marfa Lights Festival and Chinati Weekend, Marfa’s two longest running festivals.

The motions both passed unanimously, with Councilmember Yoseff Ben-Yehuda absent from the meeting.

In other city business, while national and state election primaries are well underway in Texas, five candidates for Marfa City Council applied to run before the filing window closed last Friday.

All of the seats are at-large, so Marfa voters can select up to three candidates when they visit the voting booth this May.

Current councilmembers Natalie Melendez, Buck Johnston and Yoseff Ben-Yehuda have all filed to run again, hoping to hold onto their seats. Marfa residents Stephen Boelter and Eddie Pallarez have also filed to run for council.