The travel by certain Santa Rosa County officials at taxpayers’ expense to numerous trade shows, government conferences and industry seminars is raising questions about the value of some trips.
From the North American Travel Journalists Convention in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to Florida Association of Counties workshops in Ponte Vedra near Jacksonville, the receipts in county records total thousands of dollars annually spent by commissioners and the Economic Development Office, among others.
The generally accepted justification for these journeys is based essentially on the business axiom, “It takes money to make money.” Thus the trips are viewed as an investment. With their traditional networking breakfasts of coffee and doughnuts, to dinners where picking up the tab is sometimes de rigueur for government officials wooing private industry figures in the name of economic growth, the trips rarely draw much scrutiny.
But District 4 Commissioner Rob Williamson, after learning recently that the Navarre Press is reviewing some county travel records, requested that those who travel frequently to various leisure industry get-togethers return prepared to brief other officials and the volunteer, watchdog Tourist Development Council.
At a meeting of the TDC on March 3, Williamson said, “You know if somebody were to come to me and say, ‘Hey, I see that your economic development official, or your tourism development director, is traveling here or there: Why are they doing that?’ I’d love to be able to have a quarterly report that says we went here, here’s why we went, this is who we met with and this is the result that Santa Rosa County tourism is going to see.”
Learning of Williamson’s statement from a reporter, Julie Morgan, the county tourism director, said in an email: “We are always happy to comply with a commissioner’s request.”
Yet the Navarre Press’ review of county records shows that Williamson and the other four commissioners account for travel expenses on the same State of Florida reimbursement vouchers that Morgan fills out. And while the forms contain a column labeled “Purpose or Reason,” the officials almost always supply scant, general information.
For example, on Williamson’s voucher from a July 7, 2015 trip to the Governor’s Conference at the Marriott Sawgrass Resort near Jacksonville, he entered the purpose as meeting with unspecified lobbyists “at their request.”
Some TDC members said they have long wondered about details of the tourism-related trips. “To my knowledge, as a TDC group, we haven’t heard of value for away trips other than…they are valuable,” said Laurie Gallup, a TDC member who owns a company that manages Navarre Beach lodging units.
“Rob Williamson stated and I do agree: It would be prudent to have a recap of the trip,” Gallup said. Not because she is suspicious about the amounts spent, Gallup said, “But just to glean what was discussed and an overall summary. This will allow us to gauge effectiveness of the trip and if it’s something we want to continue.”
To be sure, Morgan told the council members and commissioners of her plans to travel extensively in promoting the Santa Rosa County brand. They encouraged her in that strategy and Morgan ran with it, spending about $18,000 between October 2014 and January of this year. That total includes everything from airfare to Mexico to dozens of car trips between her office in Navarre and county headquarters in Milton at a reimbursement rate of 48.5 cents per mile.
Despite his request for more detail, Williamson told the TDC that much of the tourism-related travel is essential: “Our tourism story—we’re recruiting people from all over the United States. We have to get out there to get that information. We can’t do all that from our desks in Santa Rosa County.”
Williamson’s query is directed at the out-of-town conferences, seminars and workshops. “One of the recommendations that I would make is that we also include a recap, even if its quarterly, to let us know what you’re bringing back from these conferences in the way of relationships built in the way of continuing education, things that we will be able to plug in here,” Williamson said at the March 3 TDC meeting.
Bare-bones travel logs
Morgan’s travel records are under the supervision of her boss, Director of Economic Development Shannon Ogletree, who told a reporter earlier this month that the vouchers she files contain all the detail that has ever been requested. Indeed, Ogletree accounts for his travel expenses on the same forms. They record expenses of $10,991.36 for calendar 2015, the only records made available to this newspaper before the publishing deadline for this week’s edition.
Ogletree’s expenses included a $2,230 trip to Las Vegas last November to attend the National Business Aviation Convention. But the expense form contains no specifics about which exhibits he saw or possible new sources of county revenue that he discovered while spending four nights at the Treasure Island hotel on The Strip.
Although the county commissioners don’t travel nearly as much as Morgan or Ogletree, they collectively spent $7,369.69 in a 13-month period ending in January of this year.
Williamson’s trips accounted for nearly as much spending as the other four commissioners combined.
They attended several events for the Florida Association of Counties held in various cities around the state. Their vouchers mention such workshop and seminar subjects as public safety, growth management, ethics and the Florida Sunshine Law.
But despite the latter’s emphasis on government transparency, the vouchers are vague about the commissioners’ participation. For example, while they often submit the pre-printed agendas of the gatherings, those documents don’t indicate which events they attended.
Hotel receipts are sometimes missing from the records provided to this newspaper and the documents aren’t always correctly filed. For example, a $150 workshop fee for Rob Williamson turned up in Commissioner Jayer Williamson’s records.
Thus the new reports on lessons learned during travel may improve accountability, Rob Williamson told the TDC. “Instead of just, ‘I feel like going to that conference. That looks good. I don’t have anything else going on in April.”
He added, “I know that’s not what we’re doing…”
He requested that the reports on tourism trips begin in April.
As seen in the Mar. 24 issue of Navarre Press. Click HERE to subscribe for as little as $38 per year.