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FL: Private Cultural Council exposed for poor performance using tax funds

Report Card Day

February 6, 2014

During the regular meeting of the Tourist Development Council, held Monday, January 27th, it was “report card” day for the Visitor and Convention Bureau and the St. Johns Cultural Council as performance evaluations for the fall season, Fiscal Year 2013, were revealed. During Tuesday’s meeting of the Board of County Commissioners, each agency was allowed 10 minutes to address performance issues and present future plans.

The evaluations were submitted and tabulated between September 10, 2013 and September 27, 2013 by TDC members Jack Peter, Joseph L. Boles, Jr., Scott M. Bartosch, Jay Morris, Andrea Samuels, Irving Kass, Fred Cozby, and Bill Hughes.

With an overall performance rating of 83.2%, the Visitor and Convention Bureau, a well-funded, highly polished destination marketing partnership, had little to be ashamed of. VCB Executive Director Richard Goldman held his head high as he ran through professionally calculated studies and analysis of the initiates undertaken during the past year and offered a sneak peek at some that are planned for 2014, designed to accomplish their stated mission. All Council members recommend retaining the Visitor and Convention Bureau as the Destination Marketing agency.

In stark contrast, Andy Witt, who joked that Goldman was a hard act to follow, clearly did not impress the Board any more than he impressed the Council, as their performance evaluation was abysmal, as expected. Their evaluation report was twenty-seven pages of evidence proving that ideas and promises are cheap when you are operating with someone else’s money — the return on that investment of tax dollars, is highly suspect.

The St. Johns Cultural Council received performance scores averaging only 55%.

Among its lowest scores, only 50% – rated 2.51 out of a possible 5 points, is a highly controversial plan to allow for-profit businesses to get their hands on local bed tax dollars; earmarked under funding category II. Witt, and the people behind the scheme, believe that local non-profit organizations, which rely on funds collected from the Local Option Tourist Development Tax to operate, should have to compete with private businesses — who they say may be able to put on more professional festivals and theatre events, on the scale of Mumford and Sons and the Picasso exhibit.

Witt also revealed the Council’s plans to create a central ticketing program for all cultural events — for profit or not for profit. Observers say the Cultural Council wants to control the ticketing so that they can influence the buying decision and collect fees from those members who will either agree to pay or be excluded from participation. To the extent that Witt is proposing to make the Amphitheatre ticketing a part of the Cultural Council’s scheme, TDC Executive Director Glenn Hastings tells Historic City News that can’t happen because of existing operating agreements.

The well acknowledged failures in selecting applicants for event funding during last summer’s go around with the Arts, Culture and Heritage Funding Panel are still fresh in the minds of the elected members of the county commission — one of whom found it necessary to remind Witt that the contract they enjoy is with St Johns County, not the Tourist Development Council, and that communication with the Board, not the TDC, was an expectation.

Commissioner Cyndi Stevenson challenged Witt to define his understanding of “authentic” in deciding where grants will be awarded. Witt responded that he wants to see re-enactors, which he calls a major funding area, to wear “authentic” costumes and tell the true story, so that the visitor has the best experience. Stevenson put Witt on point asking what about the true story of the Menorcan — the settlers who came, and stayed, and are still part of our community.

Commissioner Rachael Bennett echoed Stevenson’s concerns that the appropriate priority has not been given to our historic heritage, citing the Menorcans, foot soldiers, and our forts. Acknowledging that his proposal was not a numbered list, she pointed out to Witt that developing those heritage events that tell the story that can only be told in St Augustine should not be beneath TDC goals, like putting heads in beds.

The St Johns County Tourist Development Council will hold a special meeting on Thursday, February 13th, at 1:30 p.m. in the St Johns County Auditorium located at 500 San Sebastian View, in St. Augustine, specifically to discuss issues related to Arts, Culture and Heritage and the management of the funding panel and its grant application process.

If you are interested in having your voice heard, or acquainting yourself with these issues, you should plan to attend this meeting.

Michael Gold

As the Florida editor for Watchdog Wire, my goal is to work with other citizen journalists, like you, to help compensate for the lack of mainstream news reporting to expose waste, fraud and abuse that exists in government. My colleagues at Franklin Center, and peers in the Citizen Watchdog movement, share a belief that government transparency and accountability is not a conservative or liberal idea - it is an American idea. A free flow of information is essential to maintaining our free republic, and that starts with a free press -- and that starts with you.

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