At the south end Tourist Development Council meeting on Dec. 1, Commissioner Rob Williamson’s mantra that he repeated over and over was, “Just because a recommendation is made (by this council) doesn’t mean we (the Board of Commissioners) have to follow it.” A couple of the council members were heard saying, “Then why do we meet?” That is a fair question. Why do they meet? Do they have no value to the board of commissioners or the tourism director? Is it just a check mark on a list for Commissioner Williamson and the director Julie Morgan?
Take just two examples of recent issues: Issue 1: The TDC voted at the November meeting to not move the Sand sculpting event forward to the commissioners but instead to move it back to the committee because several details of the event were not told to the TDC. Unbeknownst to the committee, TDC director Julie Morgan reached out to Pirates of the Panhandle to partner with for the event when the last thing known to the committee was they were partnering with the Navarre Chamber to host it during Fun Fest. The committee wanted to move that forward. But what happened? They were ignored. That event was moved forward to the commissioners who voted to approve spending $55,000 on an event during our busiest time of year – right in the middle of Spring Break. Is that a good use of tax dollars? Those people are already coming here, have already booked their rooms. So basically, we are spending $55,000 to put on a show for people who will already be here.
Issue 2: The TDC voted at the last meeting to contribute $20,000 to funding the Tough Mudder event. But what happened? If it had been a game of poker, the whole room would have collectively gasped. The county commissioners saw their $20,000 and raised it – to $110,000. Tough Mudder is a for-profit company. They make more than $1 million per event as they travel the U.S. putting on the event. Therefore, Tough Mudder stands to make at least $1 million. And in order for them to promote hotels and accommodations to the participants, they require hotels discount the room and give their company a 15 percent commission or kick-back on each room rental. On top of that, we are paying them to come to Santa Rosa County. And, this will mostly benefit the north end of Santa Rosa County where the event will take place. It was suggested that $110,000 could be better used to repair the Butterfly House roof, or provide sidewalks on the south side of Gulf Boulevard or to improve pedestrian safety. Commissioner Williamson referred to his years in management at Disney World to give him the tourism expertise to see the return on our investment. Even Goofy could figure out that this is a bad deal. And Williamson said, “Apparently the other four commissioners agreed.” However the other four county commissioners never heard that the tourism council voted that only $20,000 – if that – would be appropriate. Williamson referred to next year with Tough Mudder as an experiment – a $100,000 experiment. “We will see if there is return on our investment.” Yes Mr. Commissioner, yes we will.
Perhaps Mr. Williamson needs to learn some negotiation skills if he is to negotiate on behalf of the county. With a little research he would have discovered that other government entities do not pay to have Tough Mudder do business in their counties. In fact, some would think that if an entity were coming that makes more than $1 million, maybe they should pay something for the infrastructure disruption.
The real question here is why are Commissioner Williamson and director Julie Morgan working on the events that are before the committee behind the collective backs of the committee? And conveniently, what is voted on at the committee level gets rearranged and changed by the time it makes it to the board of commissioners. And the committee is none the wiser. Then Commissioner Williamson says, “If you had concerns why didn’t you attend the commissioners’ meeting?” Why would any of the council members think they needed to go to a commission meeting when their recommendations would have been respected and carried forth intact to the commissioners? Isn’t that the way it should work? The tourism director brings ideas to the committee, or ideas are generated by the committee. The committee discusses it. Someone makes a motion to move forward under specific guidance or not to move forward. If they vote to move forward, the recommendations are carried forth to the commissioners. The commissioners give weight to the committee’s recommendations and they vote on it. Sure, they can decide to go a different way than the committee, but that is usually the exception not the rule. Also, it is hard enough to attend two to three tourism council meetings a month much less attend all of the county commission meetings to make sure liaison commissioner, Rob Williamson, presents their recommendations. If he disagrees with the committee, he should present the committee’s recommendation and then voice his opposing opinion at the commission meeting.
There is something very dishonest or at the very least questionable about meetings and discussions that happen behind the scenes. We seek transparency, we preach transparency and Mr. Williamson campaigned on transparency, and we the people are getting anything but.