Like hundreds of American cities, Rochester, Minn., has a convention and visitors bureau that promotes the city as a destination.
But a series of recent events have prompted some city officials to ask whether the organization, which is funded almost entirely with tax money, should face closer scrutiny.
"Essentially, they're getting millions of dollars a year and free reign to do whatever they wish with it," said City Council Member Michael Wojcik.
It's an overstatement that the bureau, Experience Rochester, has free reign over its funding. It gets its funding from the city's lodging tax — about $2.5 million last year — but the City Council can force the group to revise its annual budget.
Wojcik says that update isn't sufficient.
Case in point: the group's proposal for a new arena that critics said was too expensive and unnecessary.
"There was nothing in a budget that would have indicated to me that they were spending substantial time and money on this," Wojcik said.
Experience Rochester said it has so far spent $25,000 on the proposal, which hasn't gone anywhere since last fall.
Experience Rochester's lobbying at the state Capitol has also stirred controversy. The group supported legislation that the city officially opposed. The legislation would allow the state to over-rule city decisions to increase minimum wage or require paid sick time.
Third ward Council Member Nick Campion is questioning whether Experience Rochester can oppose city policy when it's funded with tax dollars.
"When you start seeing that maybe they have a lobbying agenda that's different from the city, you start to question whether that's the most intelligent use of the dollars," he said.
A recent opinion from the city attorney finds no fault with the lobbying efforts, but they're not Campion's only concern.
He's more troubled by the budget deficits projected for the recently renovated Mayo Civic Center. The civic center depends on the visitors bureau to keep convention business coming and help justify the $84 million renovation.
But so far bookings are falling short, and there are millions of dollars in shortfalls expected over several years. Campion is wondering what the city is getting for the tax dollars going to the visitors bureau.
"When everything is sunshine, you give the benefit of the doubt," he said. "But when things start looking ominous, you start looking at 'OK. Where is the money going?'"
The city attorney recently bolstered Experience Rochester's public accountability. The attorney declared it's subject to the same open records requirements as government agencies.
"I've seen it stated that we have no oversight and that's false," said Experience Rochester's executive director Brad Jones. "We do have public oversight."
He says the group is very forthcoming about finances and activities with its board, which includes City Council President Randy Staver and City Administrator Steve Rymer. In that role, Rymer recently started providing the entire City Council with the group's monthly budget updates.
And Jones added that, like many visitors bureaus, they're run by a board that includes people from the city's expansive hospitality industry, not just public officials — and that means they take on a lot of issues and activities that are sometimes at odds with the city.
"That's healthy," Jones said. "Dialogue is good. It makes us better and it makes our product better."
Some on the council apparently have doubts about that. It recently voted to hire a consultant in part to assess if it makes sense to have the Civic Center so dependent on Experience Rochester.
With outside visitors worth a half a billion dollars to the Rochester economy, there's a lot riding on the answer.