In February 2011, Glenn Hastings, executive director of the Tourist Development Council, was looking for help managing the category of bed tax revenue that funds local arts, cultural, and heritage events.
In what was described at that time as a “David and Goliath” contest, the University of Florida lost its bid to provide accountability, planning, performance standards, and ethical separation between applicants for what could be millions of tax dollars and the primary decision makers as to who would win those funds — that despite the fact that they were the low bidder for those professional services.
Instead, the Tourist Development Council received approval to select the St Johns Cultural Council, a local tax-exempt organization. In an interview with Historic City News that June, Hastings told editor Michael Gold that the Cultural Council will be expected to use its contacts and resources to plan and deliver mission-specific events in the areas of arts, cultural and heritage tourism.
Historic City News readers sent a flurry of responses as the selection process unfolded. We received guest columns, comments on news articles, facebook and twitter posts from baffled readers who could not believe what many viewed as an already corrupt organization could get any worse.
It was clear from several representations made during the process that the Cultural Council lacked adequate resources, including a qualified executive and support staff, to perform the services described in the request for proposal. Still, they were appointed.
Hastings said that the Cultural Council was given six-months to correct its deficiencies, including the hiring of Andy Witt as its executive director. It was given four more months after that to:
• Obtain final approval from the TDC of a five (5) year Strategic Plan for the development of arts, culture and heritage related initiatives and programs
• Obtain final approval from the TDC of a twelve (12) month marketing plan, with corresponding budget, for Arts and Culture programs and events designed to attract tourists to the County.
• Obtain final approval from the TDC of accountability measures for Arts and Culture sponsored programs and events.
• Conduct educational workshops to provide advice and guidance to applicants who are interested in, applied for or have received Arts and Culture grant funding for programs and events.
The Cultural Council is still floundering. They have gone outside their own paid staff resources to hire a public relations and advertising agency — one whose added costs, the Cultural Council’s executive director went to great lengths to hide. In fact, during last Monday’s TDC meeting, where the Shepherd Agency, in no small part, made the Cultural Council’s marketing plan presentation for them, Witt told Historic City News that he “couldn’t recall” the details of the agency’s contract.
We pressed for a copy of the contract, which is a public record. Witt offered to e-mail the contract to Historic City News for review, and then thought better of his response.
“Rather than sending the contract, which runs some 16 pages and is mostly legalese,” Witt wrote in an e-mail to Historic City News two-days later, “Maybe its better if you simply ask me some questions regarding what you need. Save me time, Save you time.”
We put the county attorney and three commissioners on notice about the violation of Florida’s public records law and Witt’s attempt to avoid the requested disclosure; and, before the end of business, we had received a copy from County Attorney Patrick McCormack. County Administrator Michael Wanchick became aware of the incident, and called the office to be sure that, although Andy Witt does not work for him, the documents in question had been released.
Once we received and reviewed the contract, it became apparent why Witt would have hesitated. He told Historic City News that the agency had been hired to consult for a year on an hourly basis. The contract revealed that, in addition to the $125 per hour rate to be paid to Robin Shepherd Studios, Inc., from May 1, 2013 until September 30, 2014, the agency would also earn a “marketing services fee” of $12,500 per month for the period May 1st through July 31st, to compensate the Agency for staff time devoted to strategic account planning, account management, media management, public relations management, creative services and administrative services.
When questioned, Witt wrote “We asked the county for the appropriate procedure as this is the only time this has ever come up and we need to know for any future requests.”
This response from a paid “professional” director with a six-figure salary that was recruited to come here from Columbia South Carolina because he possessed the qualifications to bring accountability to the organization and its relationship with county government?
Section XI in the contract we requested is titled, “ACCESS TO PUBLIC RECORDS”, and reads, “Access to, and disclosure, non-disclosure, or exemption of, certain records, data, documents, or materials associated with this Agreement may be subject to certain provisions of the Florida Public Records Law (Chapter 119, Florida Statutes) and other applicable State or Federal law. To the extent that they are so subject, access to such records shall not be blocked, thwarted or hindered by either party placing such records in the possession of a third party or an unaffiliated party.”
Commission members tell Historic City News that they are looking into the relationships between county staff, the Cultural Council, and Tourist Development Council. Some say that they have a few questions of their own.