Kelly Bland, the Osage County tourism director, resigned from that job March 17 after a series of incidents that displeased some Osage tribal members.
Bland wore two hats – and drew two salaries – as the county tourism director and the director of the Pawhuska Chamber of Commerce.
In her letter requesting the termination of her $67,808 contract with the county, she wrote: “I would like to thank you for the past four years. I fell in love with Osage County, its people, diverse cultures, and rich history. It has been my pleasure to promote northeastern Oklahoma.”
Bland did not respond to a message on her cell phone and calls to the chamber went unanswered Friday.
It is unclear what the Chamber paid Bland but according to the Chamber’s most recent available tax return at Guidestar.org, her predecessor, Joni Nash, was paid $49,000 a year plus benefits.
The county and chamber salaries were combined when the chamber hired Bland last May, elevating her pay to at least $116,000 – more than twice what county commissioners, the county clerk, treasurer and all other elected county officials except the district attorney are paid. County officials – except the DA – top out at $57,000; their employees are capped at $42,500.
Last year, the Osage County Tourism Oversight Committee asked the Osage County Commissioners to approve paying her a bonus of 3 percent of the growth in county lodging tax receipts – up to $12,000 – but the measure failed.
Bland started out four years ago as a part-time contractor making about $35,000 a year.
Bland, a Texan who expresses great enthusiasm for cowboy life, first fell afoul of Osages a few years ago when she promoted tourist visits to the Grayhorse Cemetery – a place of great spiritual importance and the final resting place of many Osages who were murdered during the Reign of Terror.
Other missteps exacerbated the cultural discord: Wanting Osages to dance in their “costumes” for bus tours, promoting a spur display at Fairfax’s Security State Bank by using a photo of murderer William Hale’s spurs when she had the pick of more than 100 others, yelling at employees in the Wahzhazhe Cultural Center to move their cars from the parking lot adjoining the chamber’s because she was throwing a cowboy cocktail party, and referring to Osage County visits as “Osagin’ It” – which is also the name of her podcast.
“She talks about us as if we are black-and-white background photos,” said Addie Roanhorse, an Osage artist, member of the Chamber and great-granddaughter of Henry Roan, an Osage murder victim of the avaricious Hale. “We are talked about in past tense. It’s frightening.
“Most people who move here who don’t have ties to Osages want to learn and want to understand. She failed to be tactful, every step of the way, creating division.”
Both Roanhorse and her uncle, former Osage Nation Chief Jim Gray, noted that none of the former Pawhuska chamber directors in the past 20 years – Dia Doughty, Mike McCartney and Nash – had strained relations with Osages.
“I can’t think of a time where it ever blew up like that,” said Gray. “Everyone understood the value the Osage Nation brought to the economy of this area. We had healthy conversations and never had any problem with chamber directors.”
Gray said he hopes that some good would spring from the Bland experience: One, that the chamber and tourism boards would become more representative of the communities they serve.
“It would be nice if we could get more representation from the tribe on the chamber and other boards and commissions,” Gray said. “You want the Chamber to look like its community. Maybe some changes in the make-up of these organizations could be a way to avoid these situations in the future.”
District 1 Osage County Commissioner Randall Jones said that most of the information he had gleaned about Bland’s missteps was second-hand, but he did say he had long concerns about how much she was paid, especially when the pay from the city and the county were combined.
He said she always billed 173.3 hours a month – the maximum allowed in her $32.60-an-hour contract and billed an additional $950 a month allowance for office expenses.
“I had many questions on her contract and they were never answered,” Jones said. “It was a no-bid contract, but it fell under professional services. Usually, we bid out contracts, so I wasn’t used to that.”
Bland did work hard, Jones said: “Nobody is claiming that the results weren’t good. But sometimes it seemed like taking credit for something that couldn’t be qualified.”
The Pawhuska Chamber is partially funded by the city, which contributes $5,000 a month. The chamber’s total revenue is about three times that, thanks to fundraising, membership fees and other revenue. According to its most recent budget, 63 percent of its budget – $106,700 – is spent on staff salaries and benefits
Chamber President Christi McNeil said that Bland had done a good job promoting Pawhuska and Osage County. She said the Chamber’s board of directors is scheduled to meet next week to discuss how the chamber would move forward and hire a new director.