Numerous articles in Navarre Press over the past year and few months have highlighted the pains endured and discord with the Board of County Commissioners that continues to plague the all-volunteer advisory Tourist Development Council. The Legislature-mandated council is made up of tourism stake-holders as required by Florida Statute 125.0104. While the statute allows for a minimum of quarterly meetings by the council, the Santa Rosa Tourist Development Council has met monthly in the past. But recently the TDC and Board of County Commissioners have been at odds. Even in June 2015, District 4 Commissioner Rob Williamson wanted to revisit the ordinance that established the TDC, making some members wonder if he were trying to redefine their roles.
At Tuesday’s south end Tourist Development committee meeting, it was laid out by Liz Horton that beginning in October, they would like to put an end to the committee meetings that are currently open to the public and media and replace them with closed-door meetings, or focus groups as she termed it. Instead of a north advisory committee and south advisory committee they will form focus groups of stakeholders to be “more efficient” and bring more action items to the board. The focus groups will be by invitation only and will not be subject to the Sunshine Law because they are not formal meetings, just discussions. The focus groups will then pass along their suggestions to the board at the now quarterly board meetings.
In the meeting Tuesday, Horton said, “We come to the committee meetings and sometimes we get lost and talk a lot. We don’t come out with as many action items as we should.” She asserted, “Smaller groups bring about more effective and more targeted information. Our focus groups will have bona fide action items.”
But the committees brought forth plenty of action items. The problem has been that your District 4 Commissioner hasn’t been the least bit interested in what the opinions are – he wants to do what he wants to do. And that is what he puts forward to the Board of County Commissioners. He has been telling the advisory committee all along that they don’t matter and now it’s just been made official under the guise of wanting to “streamline” the process and “make it more efficient”.
He has done the same things to the citizens of District 4. He does a great job lobbying for Milton, but his own district comes second. And he has historically had the citizens on “mute”. The examples could go on and on but the courthouse is a prime example. He just recently posted on his Facebook page the question of where the courthouse should be built. Hasn’t he already decided? It leaves the impression that he wanted to engage in a debate with voters on why downtown Milton is the best location and everyone else in the county is wrong.
But here are only a few examples of how he has ignored the TDC board to which was appointed:
- In July 2015, Williamson suspended county funding for the Navarre Beach Sea Turtle Conservation Center over what was ultimately discovered to be problems at the county level processing expense payments on behalf of the turtle center. The projects for which funding was suspended were projects the TDC had rallied behind.
- The TDC and Williamson traded barbs again when he was against approving $3,000 in funding to support an art festival in Milton. TDC member Alan Lowery pushed back saying, “We just agreed through the County Commission to give $110,000 to Tough Mudder for advertising…and now we’re talking about not giving this volunteer group $3,000. Doesn’t seem right somehow.”
- Tough Mudder was the largest of all disagreements. The TDC agreed to allocate $20,000 in bed-tax money as an incentive for the for-profit company to hold its event in Santa Rosa County. But Williamson and the commission decided to ignore the wishes of the TDC and give Tough Mudder, Inc. $80,000 in tourist-tax money.
- Ignoring the wishes of the council led to the resignation of former TDC chairman Laurie Gallup. In her resignation letter, Gallup said that the County Commission’s refusal to cooperate, or even seriously consider, the council’s recommendations on promotional spending among other matters, was a major factor in her exit.
When will the County Commission and Rob Williamson stop thinking that they know better than the citizens do? They put advisory councils in place as a showpiece and then fail to take the best advice provided them. Without an effective Tourist Development Council no one will be looking at how bed-tax money is being spent and no one will effectively hold anyone accountable. How can good solid advice be given on a quarterly basis? Why should these focus groups and discussions be moved out of the light of transparency?
We agree with T.J. Goulet’s quote in this week’s issue, “They are taking discussions that happened in the sunshine and putting them in the dark. Nothing good ever happens there.”