Buckner re-elected Chamber President

Devine Chamber of Commerce President Marcus Buckner, right, was re-elected to that position in a meeting on Jan. 12, 2021. Also pictured is former Secretary Bonnie Manning.

Devine Chamber of Commerce President Marcus Buckner was re-elected to that position during a Chamber meeting last Tuesday, January 12, despite questions over the use of the organization’s debit card and a request for $6,650 in City funds that was approved by the City Council and then transferred from the Chamber’s bank account to that of Marken Media Co., Buckner’s personal business.
Vice President Margaret Greehey, Secretary Shirl Grego, and Member at Large Cindy Morales were all elected after running unopposed. Treasurer Denise Unger and Member at Large Sandy Herrera, both incumbents, also ran unopposed and were re-elected.
Former Treasurer Sandy Jopling volunteered for the third Member at Large position after no one else ran.
Former Secretary Bonnie Manning unsuccessfully challenged Buckner for President, while former Vice President Jennifer Schott did not attend the meeting or run for a seat on the Board.
Manning called the meeting to discuss charges made using the Chamber debit card in 2019 and 2020, as well as Buckner’s November 24, 2020 request for City Hotel/Motel Tax (HOT) funds for marketing projects that had not been discussed with or approved by the Board.
The Devine City Council approved Buckner’s $6,650 request, which was presented by Mayor Cory Thompson in the form of a letter written on Chamber letterhead and signed by Buckner, for $6,650 for Marken Media Co. to rent and design a billboard on IH-35 to advertise local businesses, print t-shirts with the Chamber’s “Think Local” slogan, and redesign and manage the Chamber website (see “Council disburses funds to Chamber to promote city,” in the December 9, 2020 edition of the News).
Council revoked the funds after Manning informed them in a Dec. 15 meeting that Buckner had circumvented the Board with his request, and that a $6,650 check had been written to Marken Media Co. from the Chamber (see “Council rescinds Chamber funds after allegations” in Dec. 23, 2020 edition of the News).
Buckner refused to call the Chamber meeting to order, but after Manning had done so, took the opportunity to read a prepared statement during the Visitor and Member Forum portion of the meeting to explain that he felt like the Board supported his efforts to complete what he described as “unfinished goals.”
“In late 2020, a City Council member suggested writing a wish list to the City Council,” Buckner said. “I quickly narrowed down the list of wish list items on behalf of this Chamber and wrote a letter. In November I submitted a letter and found to my surprise that all items had been approved.”
Buckner claimed that the letter he submitted to Council specified that Marken Media Co. was to function as the “manager” of the projects.
“When Board Vice President Jennifer Schott and Board Treasurer Denise Unger made the check out to Marken Media Co. in accordance with the City Council-approved letter, we began immediately rolling out the projects,” Buckner said.
This included calling business owners in Devine to sell advertising spots on a second billboard.
Manning said that Buckner informed the Board about his letter and its approval via text on Dec. 9.
“My understanding from those texts was that we were going to be voting on it the following week and discussing ways that we might use the funds that the City had approved,” Manning said.
“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Buckner said. “To be honest, I didn’t think anything was going to happen.”
“But really the way it was done, Chamber [letterhead] should not have been on there,” Herrera said. “You should have presented it as Marken Media, because the City’s going, ‘Okay, it’s the Chamber, we’re supporting the Chamber.’ Next thing you know, there’s a check being done that’s paying from the Chamber to Marken Media.
“And then we find out, oh, you’re going around asking people to do this, for you, for Marken Media, and then you’re going to turn around and you’re making whatever profit off of it.
“If you’re doing it as a Chamber thing, then whatever profit would be going to the Chamber. Not Marken Media.”
Kevin Stephens, pastor at Community Baptist Church, asked why Buckner submitted the letter to the City before presenting it to the Chamber.
“Basically that’s why I wrote the letter the way I did,” Buckner said. “I just said, ‘I, Marcus,’ you know, the Chamber President. I just was saying, like, ‘I’d like to see these things happen, and kind of a shot in the dark.”
“And I think it’s a great idea, but that still doesn’t really answer my question,” Stephens said. “Because you are the president, you’re the Chamber president. In my mind, it would have been more important to go to your Board first and say, ‘Hey, this is my thought, I just want to send this letter and see what kind of input we get back from the City.”
“It was a rookie move,” said Buckner, who stated in his prepared opening statement that he became Chamber president in April 2019. “It was a rookie move. I’m a rookie.”
“No, you’ve been here three years,” Herrera said. “No no, no rookie.”
When asked if the billboard was a Chamber project or a Marken Media Co. project, Buckner said HOT funds can be used by any organization as long as certain language is used.
“But you did it under the guise of the Chamber,” Herrera said.
“After the fact, I realized that it was confusing because I’m using Chamber letterhead,” Buckner said. “I’m like, ‘Ah, I just should’ve used Marken Media letterhead.’ I don’t know what I was thinking.”
Morales asked District 5 Councilwoman Debra Randall if it was her impression that Buckner’s funding request to the City was made on behalf of the Chamber, and Randall replied that it was.
“I know that you said ‘rookie move,’ but now I’ve heard you’ve been there for a year. To me, that doesn’t make sense,” Stephens said. “You’re the Chamber president. It’s on Chamber letterhead, going to the City Council, we got a Council person here that admitted that it seems like it’s presented on behalf of the [Chamber]. Why wouldn’t you have met with your Executive Board before you sent the letter?”
“Because like the way I was writing it, i was trying to write it as I, the Chamber president, not necessarily my Board, is saying this,” Buckner said. “I’m just trying to say like, ‘I would like this thing to happen.'”
Morales said that Buckner called her at Morales Realty to discuss the projects with her.
“I specifically asked you, ‘Who’s doing the website?” Morales said. “You said ‘I am.’ I said, ‘Who’s doing the t-shirts?’ ‘I am.’ ‘Who’s doing the billboard?’ ‘I am.’ ‘Who’s doing the graphics?’ ‘I am.’
“And I said to you, and I say it to anyone, that’s a conflict of interest. And I, as a business owner, have a problem with that.”
Morales went on to say that Chamber officers should vote on how to proceed and if funds are approved, the Board should go out for bid.
“I mean, we have lots of people that can do websites in our communities,” Morales said. “And that’s why I told you, we’ve got to spread the wealth.”
Buckner said it was a lesson learned and apologized.
“I think my passion passed my common sense,” Buckner said.
Morales added that the $6,650 approved by Council and disbursed by the City needed to stay in the Chamber account to have an audit trail.
“But the main thing is you’ve got to have records of your members voting,” Morales said. “The reason we’re here tonight is because there was none of that.”
The use of the Chamber debit card was also discussed.
Manning said that when the Board approved a Chamber debit card in May 2019, it was with the understanding that there was a $200 limit.
“We wanted receipts, we wanted monthly financial reviews so that we could oversee how the debit card was being spent and monitor the progress of the expenses for the Fall Festival,” Manning said, “which we understood at the time, since there was some rebranding involved with the Cactus Fall Festival we were going to have more expenses.”
Buckner said limiting debit card usage to $200 per transaction took place when Jopling and former President Phillip Fitch were still part of the Board.
“I needed one day, I think, one time, I had called [the bank] or something and they said ‘No, there’s no limit on this card,'” Buckner said. “And I’m like, ‘There should be a $200 limit on this card,'”
“There was no bank limit,” Jopling said. “There was a Chamber officer agreement.”
“I must have misunderstood,” Buckner said. “Because when we had that discussion with Phillip Fitch and you and Sandy Herrera, I thought we were saying $200 per transaction. Okay, okay, I misunderstood that.”
The Chamber’s bylaws were adopted prior to the approval of the debit card, and Unger said she had meeting minutes saying a debit card was issued but that no limit was stipulated.
Uhday Bhagat, owner of the Country Corner Inn, suggested that the Chamber’s bylaws be adjusted at a future meeting but said it was time to move on.
“We can’t continuously keep on explaining all the time,” Bhagat said.
Robert Karns of Doe-Re-Mi Lavender Farm said that he saw miscommunication but no malicious intent.
“I love the fact that Marcus will come out to my farm, and that he will do things for me and talk with me and give me opportunities to vent and talk and to share my vision about what I want for the farm and the community,” Karns said. “I have never met anybody as intensely interested in the welfare of our business and our community right now.
“He’s made some mistakes, and he said he’s never been in this position before, and he hasn’t. He’s learning, all right?”
Chris Henderson, owner of Billy Bob’s Hamburger’s and Manning’s fiancee, said that Chamber activities needed to be on the up-and-up.
“A lot of good things have been done through Marcus in the community, helping out with the farmers, that’s awesome,” Henderson said. “But a lot of good things, a lot of really commendable things, doesn’t negate very questionable actions here.”
Henderson pointed to the lack of Chamber meetings in 2020 and Board ignorance of expenditures as problems.
“When [the Board] don’t know exactly what you’re spending your money on, which is the Chamber’s money,” Henderson said. “Taxpayers’ money, right? [Members’] dues, their money. And that’s going to your business? That’s a serious legal implication you’re putting on everybody.”
Laurie Patteson of Carl Patteson Construction asked Manning if anything would be clarified in the News as Marken Media Co. had been “basically bashed” in the paper.
“If there is any misstatement of fact or anything at all, I would be happy to provide to make anything transparent,” Manning said. “I think that’s our role here. And since I’ve been Secretary, it’s been my responsibility to provide that myself.”
Karns then criticized Manning for “a serious lack of judgment” for not keeping her concerns within the Chamber’s sphere.
“I think we need, you know, whatever happens, just understand there are good ways to do things, and proper ways to do things so that you don’t start a rumor mill,” Karns said.
“What rumor did I start?” Manning asked.
“Just the way it comes out, the way the information comes out, the letters come out, everybody goes around because they don’t have the complete information or much information at all,” Karns said. “So I mean, it just seemed to me very, very much that it should have been handled in a much better way.”
Stephens disagreed, saying that the issue ultimately stemmed from Buckner’s actions in November.
“We wouldn’t be here if November hadn’t happened, and that letter, on [Chamber] letterhead, wouldn’t have been there presented to the City Council,” Stephens said. “So I think, honestly, Bonnie, you did your job as a Board member to bring to light to what happened, and I’m sorry if it went into the newspaper. I’m sorry if it got out into the community. Bad doing happened in November, lack of communication happened prior to November, and we can’t wash that under the rug. We can’t.”
The next Chamber meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 19.
By Marly Davis
Staff Writer