Guest Column: Bailout for Cultural Council

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A CRAMDOWN TO BAILOUT THE ST. JOHNS COUNTY CULTURAL COUNCIL

Randy Covington
Conservative Research Network

February 13, 2011

For years, the process by which bed tax monies have been allocated, especially in Category II has been seriously flawed. The pool of money CAT II draws from is approximately $1.0 million dollars a year in the current down economy and is projected to accumulate to some $34.0 million dollars over the next 20 years under the current rate.

The role and function of the Category II Funding Panel is to receive applications for Grants, train applicants on the process and screen the events and recommend the priority score for each based on a variety of factors. The CAT II Funding Panel votes to approve that list. The TDC also votes to approve that list as well. Then the list is finally forwarded to the County Commission for their approval. No funds may be released on these grants without the approval of the Board of County Commissioners. Over the last three years, I have not been able to find any instance in which any event recommended by the CAT II Funding Panel was subsequently rejected at any point along the process. The County Commissioners have been a rubber stamp for the actions of the CAT II Funding Panel and the TDC regarding grant applications.

In effect, the de-facto responsibility has been invested in an appointed Board without benefit of any disclosure of the relationships between the members of the Category II Funding Panel and grant applicants, whoever they may be. The Mission Statement of each and every one of the appointed Boards in St. Johns County, taken from Section 2 of the “Rules and Policies of the Board of County Commissioners” document states as follows:

Further, it is law in the State of Florida that any board or government agency that has authority to issue payments or recommend contracts in excess of $10,000, that appointees are required to file financial disclosure. Interestingly, in 2007, the BOCC passed a resolution requiring this of the Industrial Development Board even though, by law it was not a requirement. Seems as if that would be a prudent move for the TDC and the CAT II Funding Panel and any entity awarded a management contract.

This law is applied to several of the existing county boards such as the Planning & Zoning Board. I can find no recent example where the County Commission has denied any specific grant recommended by the, CAT II Finding Panel and the TDC. Thus, by virtue of a lack of proper oversight, the Board of County Commissioners has either granted the CAT II Funding power and authority to act on their own, and the CAT II Funding Panel and the TDC members should all be filing full financial disclosure, or the Board of County Commissioners is responsible for the numerous conflicts of interest that exist on the TDC and the CAT II Funding Panel over the issuance of grants from the bed tax monies.

The Conflicts of Interests

Florida Statutes 112.312 (8) defines “Conflict” or “conflict of interest” as a situation in which regard for a private interest tends to lead to disregard of a public duty or interest. This is entirely different from a “voting conflict” of interest.

County Commissioner and TDC Commissioner Ken Bryan

Commissioner Bryan sits as the County Commission Representative for the current year. Last years BOCC member was Commissioner Stevenson. Ken Bryan is a former Director of the Cultural Council into the year 2007. He claims to have resigned that position, but we have no clear indication whether or not he remains a member or not as the Cultural Council refuses to provide the membership information requested in an open records request.

When confronted over the fact of his previous stint as a Director of the Cultural Council at a recent TDC meeting and asked to recuse himself from voting on the contract recommendation between the Cultural Council and the University of Florida, he refused, acknowledged he was a former Director and after several minutes of discussion among the board, County Attorney McCormack read the statute on “Voting Conflicts”. Once Commissioner Bryan interpreted that to mean he could not go to jail for voting on the contract, he voted to recommend the Cultural Council over the University of Florida.

So, he has no “voting” conflict. Under the statute, I could vote on an issue to award a contract to a long time friend (as long as I am not slated to receive any money from that contract) and it probably is not a “voting conflict”…but would it be moral? Would it not breach the public trust? Especially without disclosure?

Florida Statute 112.313 (6) says:

“MISUSE OF PUBLIC POSITION.—No public officer, employee of an agency, or local government attorney shall corruptly use or attempt to use his or her official position or any property or resource which may be within his or her trust, or perform his or her official duties, to secure a special privilege, benefit, or exemption for himself, herself, or others. This section shall not be construed to conflict with s. 104.31.”

This is where Commissioner Bryan went far afield. Initially, in the June workshop where Ken Bryan tried to hold an impromptu vote to award the contract to the Cultural Council, when that vote was short-circuited, he wanted an instruction to staff “to begin developing the RFP”. Early the next month, in the TDC, he volunteers to Chair the ad-hoc committee charged with drafting the RFP. Why did he suddenly decide to take control of that process? He took positive, affirmative steps that ensured he would be in a position to have a high level of influence on how that RFP was drawn. Indeed, that committee inserted a provision designed to favor the Cultural Council, specifically (from RFP 11-11):

MINIMUM QUALIFICATIONS
• Not-for-Profit Corporation organized under section 501 (c) of the Internal Revenue Code and authorized to do business in the State of Florida.
• Must be based within St. Johns County or maintain its primary office within St. Johns County
• Demonstrated financial stability
• Ability to maintain and secure adequate, qualified staff

Indeed, this provision granting preference to county based organizations was cited by all the members of the TDC as swaying their decision, despite the fact that the University of Florida proposal was superior in the areas of experience of the principles, in grant writing, and the Universities experience in Tourism Development overall. The University did not propose a full time office presence in the County but planned for a regularly attended office on a part time basis. Ken Bryan took extraordinary steps to place him in a position to be able to add provisions that would favor the Cultural Council. You have to ask why this provision is not applied equally across all other contracts in St. Johns County. Local preference can be a good thing when applied evenly and fairly an in conformance with a clear policy.

TDC Commissioner Scott Bartosch

Scott Bartosch applied to the TDC in 2009. On his application (Exhibit A), he makes no mention of his position as the President of the Board of the Limelight Theater in St. Augustine. The troubling thing about Mr. Bartosch is that the Limelight Theater has, with recommendations from the CAT II Funding Panel (on which Phil McDaniel and Kim Allsup sat and both of whom served on the board of the Cultural Council during overlapping time frames) received the following total grant funding amounts:

◦2009 – $ 10,000
◦2010 – $ 21,500 (Exhibit B)
◦2011 – $ 21,500 (Exhibit C, recommended, not yet received in total)

Once again, Mr. Bartosch was advised by County Attorney Patrick McCormack that it was not a “voting” conflict for him to vote to recommend the Cultural Council under RFP 11-11. I think Mr. Bartosch is a decent man who has gotten incomplete legal advice in that regard. Unfortunately, it still cannot explain his joining Ken Bryan on the ad-hoc Committee that formulated the RFP and taking affirmative action to be able to exert influence over the construction of the RFP that ultimately favored the Cultural Council.

Phil McDaniel

Phil McDaniel, from February of 2008, (Exhibit D) until November of 2010, (Exhibit E) was listed on the corporate papers of the Cultural Council as a Director and President. In November or 2011, just prior to the closing deadline for the RFP, he was removed from these capacities from the Corporate papers (Exhibit F). During this same period of time, he sat on the CAT II Funding Panel. The exact time period is unsure. It is not likely this arrangement would pass muster in most private and non-profit organizations. Additionally, Phil McDaniel spent much energy lobbying the TDC and Board of County Commissioners to obtain a contract for the Cultural Council to mange cultural events. In his tenure as Chair of the CAT II Funding Panel, Mr. McDaniel has recommended several very dubious events and may have, in some fashion, facilitated the Special Events Division of Parks and Recreation in subverting TDC policy on the use of CAT II monies. He has always claimed a special relationship with that division.

One specific example is the Harvest of Hope which really did not fit the cultural standards (St. Johns County does not seem the rightful environment for a 3 day punk rock drunk fest) of the County and may not have been eligible for the grants, $50,000 in 2009, $50,000 in 2010 and $35,000 in 2011 (subsequently withdrawn). The reason the 2011 grant was withdrawn was the blatant misrepresentation of the attendance in 2009 on the 2010 and 2011 grant applications discovered by a simple cursory examination of the application after a comparison of the St. Johns County Closing Statements. The Harvest of Hope, including the grants in 2009 (Exhibit B) and 2010 (Exhibit C) led to some $ 196,000 in loses of taxpayer money.

There is also a current dispute between two re-enactor groups over grants occurring in 2010 and 2011 with allegations of corporate identity theft, calling into question the status of those grants for 2011 and leading to a criminal complaint. The CAT II Funding Panel should have detected the anomaly in that case. Then there is the matter of the Rena Blades Cultural Implementation Plan. In early 2010, the TDC signed a contract with Consultant Rena Blades to study the management of Cultural Events in the County. Upon engaging her, the TDC appointed the Cultural Industry Council to “assist” her in conducting the study.

The members of that group were:
◦Eva Doolittle -Eva has long advocated for the Cultural Councils position to manage the events.
◦Scott Bartosch – President of the Board of the Limelight Theater.
◦Tommy Bledsoe – Current President of the Cultural Council, a long time member of that board and a beneficiary of Grant monies as a performer at the Southern Heritage Arts Festival in 2010.
◦Dick Williams – Current Director of the Cultural Center at Ponte Vedra Beach.
◦Phil McDaniel – Past and long time President of the Cultural Council, holding that position at overlapping times to his seat on the CAT II Funding Panel.
◦Sandra Parks – Current Vice President of the Cultural Council, long time Board member and the wife of Stetson Kennedy and a member of the Board of the Stetson Kennedy Foundation.

As you will note three of these people have direct ties to the Cultural Council and they, or organizations they represent have benefited in some form, some substantially from their association. One other, Scott Bartosch sits as the President of the Limelight which has received over $ 52,000 in grants from the TDC and The Cultural Council. He did not disclose his association with the Limelight on his application to the TDC (Exhibit A) in 2009. One can only wonder why.

Phil McDaniel has been lobbying this county for this contract for over 3 years now. The organization he headed for several years (as recently as October 2010) stands to gain a contract for over $ 200,000 a year as a result and it is a strong possibility they will hire him as the Executive Director. Just how much of a direct benefit to him will that bring? The Cultural Council’s proposal by the way is 300% higher than that of the competing proposal from the University of Florida.

Tommy Bledsoe, a long time member of the Cultural Council and its current president is a direct beneficiary of TDC funds, as a performer in 2010.

Sandra Parks Kennedy, The Stetson Kennedy Foundation was selected to be the beneficiary of any profits that would have emanated from the Southern Heritage Arts Festival. Unfortunately for the Foundation the event lost money and, in an unusual twist for such an event, (same standard was not applied to the Harvest of Hope event) they were forced to pay some $ 2,500 of the loss as their share.

The process conducted by Rena Blades was managed by Phil McDaniel and was heavily influenced by the members of the CIC. At the end of the process, which the taxpayers of St. Johns County paid for, Rena Blades recommended that the County just negotiate a contract with the Cultural Council to implement the Cultural Management Implementation Plan she devised. At a combined TDC and BOCC workshop held last June, Ken Bryan tried to hold a vote to do just that. Commissioner Sanchez, to his credit, refused to go along as the notice on that meeting made no mention that such a move was on the agenda and his concern, rightly so, is that violated the public’s right to review and comment. It was later discovered direct negotiation was not in conformance with law and policy and thus began the long tortuous process to conduct the charade of a fair and transparent RFP process. When his attempt to vote to hand over the contract that day failed, Bryan he pushed for an “immediate” instruction to staff to construct an RFP. As noted above, shortly after this meeting, instead of having staff draw the RFP, Ken Bryan volunteered to Chair an ad-hoc committee to product the RFP.

Amazingly, there was talk at that meeting of making a “bridge loan” by Michael Wanchick to assist the Cultural Council in hiring a Director up front. It is highly unusual to pay a contract in advance in public contracting. They are nearly always paid in arrears. Seems a possibility that the weak financial position of the Cultural Council has been a long-standing well known fact.

The evaluation process of the RFP included the category of Financial Stability. The Cultural Council proposal included a financial statement (Exhibit G) that showed the total current assets to be a measly $ 17,905. When you deduct the $ 12,565 which is Cultural Arts License plate monies that are designated to grants, they have only $ 5,340 in operating cash available. The Operating Budget of the University of Florida in FY 2005-2006 was $2,436,000 (yes with a B). Yet, four TDC members scored both organizations equal in this category, three scored the University of Florida as more financially stable and one Commissioner, amazingly, shockingly scored the University as financially weaker… but then, perhaps that is why they may have needed a “bridge loan”.

It is clear, from the record, there are numerous conflicts of interest surrounding this entire process. This process has been corrupted beyond repair. The Board of County Commissioners, due to their poor to non-existent oversight that they have encouraged the incompetent and corrupt process that surrounds this RFP. The BOCC owns every dollar of waste that this has lead to and the severe levels of mistrust in the community. FROM THIS MOMENT ON – The BOCC has to be held accountable for this fiasco.

One last fact. In the current economic climate, the $203,000 price asked for by the Cultural Council represents 45% of the total awarded grants in 2011. Is this truly an efficient use of the bed tax monies? The price asked for by the University of Florida seems much more in line with reality. Oppose the award to the Cultural Council. Contact each and every one of the commissioners and tell them in e-mails and by phone to just say no and start over. Demand they clean up this mess by appointing a blue-ribbon commission that can investigate the entire structure of CAT II funding and recommend the necessary changes. Demand they clean up the process and require full transparency and the highest level of care and concern in the conduct of the peoples business. Tell them to stop insulting your intelligence and wasting your money. Tell them, that conflicts of this nature seriously, whether or not technically legal, erode public confidence in their leadership.

In the end, the Board of County Commissioners is responsible for the Actions of the TDC and the CAT II Funding panel. They must understand that what is done with their affirmation can, if it deeply offends the sensibilities of the community, lead to great harm to their reputations as Commissioners and as individuals. It is time for the BOCC to set a higher standard of integrity than that covered by voting conflicts.

Conservative Research Network

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