Bland says she quit to prevent damage

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

Kelly Bland made her final reports last week as Osage County’s tourism director, outlining her achievements and explaining her regrets.

Bland addressed the Board of County Commissioners on April 11, and the county’s Tourism Oversight Committee on April 13. She told the tourism committee that she quit to try and prevent damage to the foundation she laid for long-term success in attracting visitors to the county. She specified that she was trying to prevent adverse publicity, surrounding an attempt to oust her, from diminishing the county’s attractiveness as a travel destination.

The series of events that convinced Bland to resign as both county tourism director and executive director of the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce appears to have begun in February, when she placed a county tourism post online about the display at a Fairfax bank of a pair of spurs that once belonged to Bill Hale, who was prosecuted and imprisoned for his role in the murders of Osage Nation citizens during the “Osage Reign of Terror.”

The post drew criticism from some Osages. Bland took it down, and clarified she had not meant to glorify Hale. Rather, she said that she meant to interest people in visiting the town of Fairfax. Bland has noted that actor Robert De Niro played the role of Hale in a motion picture likely to be released later this year.

What transpired after the controversy regarding the Hale spurs post was “a perfect political storm,” Bland told the tourism committee April 13. She said that antagonistic activity was “allowed to run amok and unchecked.”

”It was aimed at a person and that person was me,” Bland said. She drew the conclusion that what was necessary for the storm to end was for her to step aside.

Bland told the tourism committee that even after her resignation, she was a target of adverse publicity. She cited a March 18 news story that appeared on the website of the Osage News. The story, written by Louise Red Corn, said that Bland’s decision to resign followed “a series of incidents that displeased some Osage tribal members.”

Bland said the story contained three untrue statements — that she had failed to respond to a message on her cell phone, seeking comment; that she had promoted tourist visits to the Grayhorse Cemetery; and that she had once yelled at employees at the Wahzhazhe Cultural Center to move their cars from the parking lot between the Cultural Center and the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce.

”She never called me and left a message,” Bland said of Red Corn. “She never checked her facts at all.”

The Journal-Capital contacted Shannon Shaw Duty, editor of the Osage News, on Thursday, April 14 via text message and email, and provided her with a written account of Bland’s disputation of the three statements. Ms. Duty responded in writing as follows: “The Osage News verified the information in question before publishing and we stand by our reporting. Thank you.”

Committee Support High

As Bland met with the county tourism committee for the last time, support for her appeared to remain solid. Committee member Bill Sweeden, of Pawhuska, a former county commissioner, told Bland he thought she might have been too hasty in resigning. Sweeden asked Bland if she would be willing to serve as interim tourism director while the committee and county commissioners searched for her successor. Bland thanked Sweeden for being supportive, but declined the offer.

Trisha Kerkstra, general manager of the POSTOAK Lodge & Retreat, who is a former tourism committee member, read aloud to the committee a press release prepared by the Green Country Marketing Association in Tulsa. The release recounted some of Bland’s accomplishments in more than four years as tourism director.

“Kelly’s contributions have helped move Osage County from a relatively unknown to a vibrant destination,” Committee President Wayne Ray Mitchell said in the release.

The following statement in the release was attributed to Kerkstra: “If I could choose the next tourism director, I would frame the position around Kelly’s ability to navigate multiple interests, her passion for the people and the heart of the Osage, her sharp administrative skills and her incredible creativity and communication abilities.”

District 2 Commissioner Steve Talburt attended the tourism committee meeting and he responded to concerns that had been aired previously in public about the amount of money Bland was paid to be tourism director — more than senior county elected officials make. In total, her pay as tourism director and Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce executive director reached the realm of six figures.

”It really shouldn’t matter what her salary is,” Talburt said, speaking of the tourism director portion of the compensation. “It doesn’t come out of our budget. It comes out of what she produces.”

The salary for the tourism director position is paid out of county lodging tax receipts, which are to be spent to promote tourism. Bland was legally an independent contractor in her relationship with the county, not an employee.

Talburt, who is currently chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, also made it plain during Bland’s April 11 appearance before that panel that he was unhappy to lose her.

Bland shares the growth numbers

During both of her official reports last week — to the commissioners and to the tourism committee — Bland provided figures that demonstrated the size of the growth of Osage County’s tourist economy during her tenure as director.

Bland said Osage County Tourism had about $67,000 of unencumbered funds available at the end of the 2017-18 fiscal year. Currently, the tourism program has more than $368,000 of unencumbered funds, she said.

Lodging tax income has also been increasing, from about $108,000 in 2017-18 to more than $244,000 so far in the 2021-22 fiscal year, which doesn’t end until June 30.

Osage County has been spending more than ever before on tourism advertising, and it has made important strides despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Bland said.

Bland reported that she oversaw the launch of a new website, and the creation of an online app, a blog, a podcast and two online magazines.

She managed Osage County’s presence on multiple social media platforms, wrote magazine articles, took photos, answered interview questions from reporters and met busloads of tourists with a smile and cinnamon rolls.

In 2021, Osage County Tourism received three Redbud Awards from the Oklahoma Travel Industry Association, including the award for Tourism Organization of the Year (Small Budget).

Additionally, Bland worked to develop constructive relationships with community stakeholders. She recalled that she met with Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear in 2018, and he assigned a liaison to meet and work with her. Bland noted that she met with Osage Nation staff members on subjects such as grant writing and land acquisition. She also developed constructive professional relationships with merchants, ranchers, legislators, state executive branch officials, tour company operators and potential investors in Pawhuska and Osage County.

Differing views among commissioners

When Bland said her goodbyes to the county commissioners April 11, in the Women’s Building at the Osage County Fairgrounds, District 1 Commissioner Randall Jones thanked her for her service to the county, but added that he continues to have questions to which he is desirous of clearer answers when it comes to the financial compensation aspect of the tourism program.

”I was never anti-tourism,” Jones said, as he tried to explain his perspective.

District 2 Commissioner Steve Talburt was markedly more complimentary of Bland’s efforts.

”I just want to say that we appreciate everything that you’ve done,” Talburt said. “It makes me so sad to ever consider you going anywhere else. You have done a phenomenal job.”

A few moments later, Talburt, leaning forward and speaking with emphasis, added the following: “And just know that I don’t accept your resignation.”

When the county’s Tourism Oversight Committee met April 13 at the Tulsa Botanic Garden, Talburt attended and made a point of saying that he and District 3 Commissioner Darren McKinney needed to be kept every bit as much informed about tourism development matters as Jones.

Jones later told the Journal-Capital by telephone that the same information about county tourism is available to all three commissioners. It is up to each commissioner to engage with that material, he said.

Jones clarified that the remaining questions he spoke of at the Board of County Commissioners’ meeting deal with issues arising from the period of time when Bland was both county tourism director and the Pawhuska Chamber executive. Jones said he also has a question about a no-bid advertising contract. He clarified that he was not saying anything illegal had been done.

During the April 14 tourism committee meeting, Talburt also indicated he welcomes the committee playing a strong role in the process of finding a successor for Bland and in handling other tourism matters.

”I believe that you guys should be able to make your decisions the way you see fit,” Talburt said.

He added, as an encouragement to the committee: “You are represented by three commissioners, not ruled by one.”

Photo cutline: Trisha Kerkstra, right, general manager of POSTOAK Lodge & Retreat and a former member of the Osage County Tourism Oversight Committee, reads a press release to the committee April 13 that lauds the accomplishments of Kelly Bland, left, during more than four years as the county's Tourism Director.