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Panel seeks Arts Council's travel vouchers

In an unusual move, a legislative oversight committee has requested four years of travel expense reports from the Florida Arts Council and its staff. The Arts Council, a volunteer state advisory group, has been criticized recently because of a meeting in Fort Lauderdale that arts organizations complained was lavish in light of the tight budget year facing Florida.

Legislative analyst Marcia Mathis of the House Regulatory Reform Committee said she had planned to request the council's travel vouchers before the meeting Feb. 4-6 in Fort Lauderdale because of allegations presented to her several months ago about the spending of the Arts Council.

The person who complained _ whom Mathis would not identify _ said council members "stayed at lavish places and so on," she said.

The committee requested Arts Council travel vouchers for 1987, 1988, 1989 and 1990.

Council members and staff vehemently defend their spending practices, saying they often dish out money from their own pockets to attend meetings around the state.

"I estimate that my year as chairman will cost me hundreds of dollars, perhaps even into the four figures," said Arts Council chairman Homer Hooks of Lakeland.

Council vice chairman Joan Ling of Pompano Beach also said she routinely spends her own money at meetings because expenses go beyond state reimbursements.

The Arts Council, which makes recommendations for disbursing millions of dollars of arts grants a year, usually has four meetings a year, two of them in Tallahassee and two in other areas of the state.

The House Regulatory Reform Committee is involved in reviewing the Florida Arts Council for the upcoming Legislative session because the law that established it expires Oct. 1. The sunset review, as it is called, examines the need for and benefits of a particular program and whether it should be ended, changed or re-established.

A request for travel vouchers is highly unusual, according to legislative analysts who do sunset reviews. Mathis said she has not requested vouchers in the two years she has served with the House Regulatory Reform Committee, and the committee that handled the Arts Council review for the Senate did not make such a request.

Arts organizations on tight budgets raised questions about the council's Fort Lauderdale meeting because council members stayed at a four-star hotel, enjoyed a luncheon aboard a $16.8-million yacht and took part in private cocktail and dinner parties. Arts organizations had to stay at a less expensive hotel, where a discount rate was arranged.

Arts Council staff pointed out that the state did not pick up the entire tab for the meeting because an Arts Council member solicited companies and private donors to put up $25,000 to $30,000. However, the solicitation of sponsors also raised questions in light of an ethics reform movement that has begun in Tallahassee. Gov. Bob Martinez recently proposed an ethics package that would prohibit public officials from soliciting gifts and meals from people or companies.

After the St. Petersburg Times wrote about the meeting, the Arts Council was criticized in the Tallahassee Democrat for being insensitive to arts groups and "putting on such a display" during a tight budget year. A Miami Herald arts columnist also raised questions about whether Arts Council members might have discussed public business in private at the Fort Lauderdale meeting, which would be a violation of the Florida's open government laws.

Vice chairman Ling said no such thing occurred. "There was not an under-the-table transaction or anything of the kind," she said.