Hillsborough County's tourism agency acted in bad faith every step of the way in hiring a new chief executive. Now it's going to be up to the new boss to instill a much-needed culture of openness and accountability.
The agency, Tampa Bay & Co., started off on the wrong foot by not conducting a professional search for a successor to Paul Catoe. After business leaders and others publicly criticized the move, agency officials told the St. Petersburg Times they would be as open as possible, sharing the names of finalists and keeping the public informed about the selection process.
They did no such thing. On Thursday afternoon, the agency refused to disclose when its board would vote on whether to hire Kelly Miller as its new CEO. The board did just that only one day later. Tampa Bay & Co. also did not release the number of finalists for the job until after the fact. It still won't name the finalists or explain what put Miller over the top. And it won't discuss the transition or how much Miller will be paid.
These are legitimate questions because Tampa Bay & Co. has all the makings of a public entity. The nonprofit exists thanks to a dedicated source of public funds. Eighty percent of the agency's $10 million budget comes from a tax on hotel rooms. And one of its major responsibilities is to fill a publicly owned convention center.
Then there are the agency's spending practices. Catoe was paid $241,000 in 2009, while at least seven other executives made six-figure salaries. Never mind that the number of visitors to Hillsborough has dropped every year since 2005. Visitors are less likely to stay overnight and they are arriving in smaller parties. Business leads have dropped. The process of hiring of new CEO should have afforded this community an opportunity to assess whether its tourism marketing efforts were getting a bang for the buck.
County officials are reviewing a proposal to require nonprofits to compete for annual funding. The rationale is that with dollars scarce, only the best performers should be subsidized with public money. It is not practical or even smart to put the county's tourism promotion efforts on an annual contract. But the county needs to send a message to Tampa Bay & Co. about the accountability that comes with feeding at the public trough.