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Lavish arts council trip questioned

TALLAHASSEE - While budget-conscious lawmakers were eating brown-bag lunches at a conference last week, members of a state arts advisory group were enjoying a luncheon buffet aboard a $16.8-million yacht. Members of the Florida Arts Council also were entertained at cocktail and dinner parties, and they stayed at a four-star hotel and marina in Fort Lauderdale during their three-day meeting.

The meeting left at least some arts groups and members of the public astonished at such an extravagant affair - especially at a time when lawmakers say they face a $1-billion state budget deficit and state agencies have been forced to limit their travel expenditures.

Arts organizations, most of whom are on tight budgets, say they could not afford to stay at Pier 66 - the hotel where arts council members stayed and committee meetings took place.

"I do not choose to spend my organization's dollars for a hotel room that costs $189 a night," said Kay E. Burk, executive director of the Brevard Cultural Alliance.

Arts Council staff in Tallahassee are quick to point out that taxpayers did not pick up the entire tab for the meeting Feb. 4-6 in Fort Lauderdale.

Bonnie Barnett, a member of the council from Broward County, arranged to have companies and private donors pay for portions of hotel bills, meals and entertainment. As a result, members of the arts council and staff had to pay only $80 per night for their rooms, rather than a $160 group rate, said Judee Pettijohn, an assistant director in the secretary of state's Cultural Affairs Division. Regular rates at the hotel, which features a marina, tennis courts and a pool on 22 acres, range from $180 to $260 a night at this time of year.

Alamo Rent a Car, American Express, Southern Bell and Sun Bank/South Florida were among companies that gave cash or provided in-kind services for the arts meeting. Mrs. Barnett said corporate sponsors contributed $25,000 to $30,000 for the three-day meeting.

"The people in Broward were very generous about giving what they could give," Mrs. Barnett said.

However, the solicitation of money and entertainment for a public meeting also raises questions at a time when ethics in government has become a hot topic. Gov. Bob Martinez recently proposed an ethics reform package that would prohibit public officials from soliciting gifts and meals from people or companies.

The solicitation of gifts is acceptable under current law, the governor's general counsel, Peter Dunbar, said Tuesday. But the arts council meeting offers "another reason to stress why we ought to as a matter of public policy speak to these (ethics) issues more clearly," Dunbar said.

Toni Riordan, a legislative consultant for arts and entertainment organizations, was particularly disturbed about the corporate donations. "Arts organizations desperately need sponsors to pay for events, not to pay for bureaucrats to stay in fancy hotels," she said.

The arts council, a 15-member group of volunteers appointed by the secretary of state, met in Fort Lauderdale to make final recommendations on awarding $12-million in grants to arts organizations for 1990-91.

Arrangements were made for others attending the conference to stay at another Fort Lauderdale hotel, the Riverside, for a discounted rate of $65 per night.

But the distance between the Riverside and Pier 66 made it necessary for those people to pay for rental cars, take cabs and pay a parking charge at Pier 66 to attend meetings.

Eyebrows also were raised when arts council members took a lengthy break to eat lunch aboard the 167-foot yacht Gallant Lady. Chartered water taxis brought lunch guests to and from the yacht and Pier 66.

Southeast Toyota Distributors sponsored the luncheon, but not everyone was able to take part.

"You had to have special shoes to go because the flooring was all teak," said Art Keeble, executive director of the Arts Council of Hillsborough County. "You had to have boat shoes. I had just a pair of Weejuns."

Mrs. Barnett also had a private party at her home Feb. 5, the day before final recommendations were made on the arts grants. Burk, from the Brevard arts group, said the invitation-only party made some groups uncomfortable because of the appearance that public business could be discussed in a private setting. "People who had grants on the line were concerned about it," Burk said.

Mrs. Barnett described her dinner party as a social gathering and scoffed at even the suggestion of impropriety.

"We understand the (public meeting) law," said Barnett, who is married to a lawyer. "There is no discussion except in public."