Cultural Council’s front man gets feet held to fire

Fidgeting like a cat on a hot tin roof, St Johns Cultural Council executive director, Andy Witt, was called before the members of the Tourist Development Council to explain exactly how the embattled local arts agency expects to implement the next round of special event funding from bed tax funds earmarked for Arts, Cultural and Heritage events.

In many ways, Witt, who incessantly tugged at his necktie, shirt sleeves, lapel of his coat and his glasses, was between the devil and the deep blue sea — a panel, seated in front of him, made up of appointed volunteers who are members of the tourism and lodging industry in St Johns County, who were barraged with complaints about inequities in last summer’s scoring of applicants for funds from the local option tourist development tax, and, seated behind him, an audience that contained members of the tourism event production industry, artisans, historical re-enactors, and event sponsors, some of whom consider themselves the victims of the St Johns Cultural Council’s inept handling of the program.

Witt was flanked at the dais by St Johns County Attorney, Patrick McCormack, and, to his right, Glenn Hastings; the executive director of the Tourist Development Council. Both the attorney and Hastings interrupted Witt at times while he droned through a number of powerpoint slides with information that had already been distributed to Council members.

With only minutes to spare before the 1:30 p.m. meeting, some of the information was still being aggregated by Witt; a move that left some members, who believed they were prepared, to instead feel as though they had been thrown a curve ball. While others, like TDC Chairman Irving Kass, interrupted Witt simply to remind him that he was “off topic” and needed to return to the agenda. At another point, Kass stopped Witt to ask if he had anything new to add — pointing out that most of this afternoon’s presentation was nothing more than a re-hash of old information.

Today’s meeting was a special meeting called at the request of the TDC, immediately following last Tuesday’s meeting of the full Board of County Commissioners — the governing body that appoints the TDC and the only body that can officially act on any recommendations that come from the TDC, Visitors Convention Bureau, Cultural Council, or the ACH Funding Panel. During that meeting, the commissioners expressed concern about the recent evaluation scores of the St Johns Cultural Council that indicated they were performing at sub-standard levels — averaging only about 55%.

Witt claimed there have been communications problems, but he said he had a “healthy” working relationship with Glenn Hastings and the TDC — even though they disagree on how some things should be done. Vice Chairman of the Board of County Commissioners, Rachael Bennett felt compelled to interrupt and remind Witt in his presentation before that body that the St Johns Cultural Council is contracted to work for the Board, not for the Visitors Convention Bureau.

Some watching the events unfold today questioned exactly how Witt was going stand his ground after being so quick to draw lines in the sand for the local non-profit producers of historically accurate interpretations of heritage events, other artisans, members of the 90-year-old St Augustine Art Association, founded before there ever was a cultural council; but, some were surprised to see him back down and retreat — at least on some issues.

Witt took a grilling from TDC member and St Augustine Beach Mayor Andrea Samuels, over the Cultural Council’s interpretation of certain types of event activities that have been recipients of bed tax funds for years.

Much of the discussion went without public comment, except military re-enactor Conrad Matt and Romanza president, Albert Syeles. Questions came forward about a proposal that looked favorably on applicants who had grown what Witt had labeled “administration”, but later in the meeting changed to “organizational capacity”, and Witt’s continued efforts to allow for-profit entities to compete against local non-profits for bed tax money. In a slightly altered point, Witt has represented that the Cultural Council wants to focus more on the “event” than the “organization”.

As Witt continued to play a game of semantics, he got shot down by the county attorney when he proclaimed that, in the future, applications for bed tax grants would be referred to “proposals” for “contracts for services” — another slick move to usurp a term that could get in the way of for profit corporations eager to stick their fingers in the bed tax cookie jar. McCormack informed Witt, and the Council, that the contract with the county specifically hired Witt’s organization to administer “applications for grants” and that it would be best not to change that.

The only vote of consequence today, except for the vote to adjourn, was a unanimous vote to forward the budget and application materials to the Board of County Commissioners for approval. It is too late to make their next meeting, Tuesday, February 18, 2014, so the material will not be heard until the following agenda, Tuesday, March 4, 2014.

Share your thoughts with our readers >>