TALLAHASSEE — Board members at the state's top tourism agency had agreed in September that the chief marketing officer should be promoted to take the place of the outgoing CEO. But there was a problem: Making that decision unilaterally could offend the agency's chief funders — the state Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott.
So instead, Visit Florida gave a recruiting firm a no-bid $45,000 contract to conduct a nationwide CEO search in two months. It happens to be the same firm that originally recruited the chief marketing officer, Will Seccombe, five years earlier.
"I think it's critical that we at least put a brief committee together, and then we can, you know, help to sell Will to the rest of the state," board member Lino Maldonado said at a board meeting in September.
The emergency meeting took place the day after CEO Chris Thompson announced he'd be leaving Visit Florida to head up a national tourism agency.
The first reaction from some board members was to immediately promote Seccombe to the $225,000-a-year CEO position. Doing so would allow the state-funded agency to have a permanent CEO in place before Scott and the Legislature began making crucial decisions about how much taxpayer money the organization should get next year.
"I don't think we need to put the time, money and effort into a nationwide search," said John Perez, a hotel executive who sits on Visit Florida's board. "I think we have a very competent replacement for Chris, in Will, already in place."
But some board members were concerned about the "optics" of appointing a new CEO without consulting the Legislature or conducting an official search — something they believed Florida's businessman-turned-governor would expect.
The board came up with a compromise: hire a recruiting firm, give it 60 days to do a nationwide search and, hopefully, end up with Seccombe as CEO anyway.
"I think there's an expectation (from the governor) that there'll be a search, and that will give Will an opportunity to really shine through that process," Dawn Moliterno, a board member, said in September.
The meeting, the comments and the hiring of a search firm expose Visit Florida's awkward relationship with state elected officials, who control so much of its budget. While board members appear set to hire Seccombe, the developments could lead to more scrutiny over Visit Florida's management practices, even as lawmakers decide how much money to give the agency next year.
Seccombe is currently serving as acting CEO and has expressed interest in the permanent job. In the recruitment process, he will benefit from having previously been recommended by the search firm, Searchwide, and because of the shortened search process.
He said he did not play a role in deciding who received the no-bid contract and has confidence that the process will be fair.
"I don't think that there's a better (candidate) for a search firm for the industry that we're in," said Seccombe.
While the Minnesota-based recruiting firm is a top name in the hospitality industry, Visit Florida had used it only once before: in 2007, to recruit Seccombe.
Thompson, who recently started as the executive director at Brand USA in Washington, defended the decision to give the contract to Searchwide. He said that while Seccombe may have an advantage as an "incumbent," all candidates will be considered.
"It is absolutely in no way, shape or form going through the motions," he said, pointing out that Searchwide had also been retained by Visit Orlando for an executive search this year. "It is a legitimate search."
But good-governance groups say the swift recruiting process does not appear to be completely open and fair.
"Visit Florida claims to be an equal-opportunity employer, but it appears they have rigged their hiring process to unfairly benefit the acting president," said Dan Krassner, executive director for Integrity Florida, which advocates for tougher ethics laws.
Searchwide executives did not respond to requests for comment.
Searchwide signed the contract on Oct. 5, and is expected to complete its nationwide search by early December.
Experts in the field of executive talent recruitment say that such a short period is abnormal for a national CEO search.
"That's a really aggressive timetable," said Theresa Rohr, senior associate at Stanton Chase International, a global executive search firm with offices in San Francisco. "For a CEO, very aggressive."
Visit Orlando offers a useful comparison. The Central Florida tourism agency hired Searchwide to find a new CEO in May, and a spokesman said the organization doesn't expect the process to be completed until January. Several other companies that have contracted with Searchwide have given the company more than six months to complete a national search.
Visit Florida relies on the Florida Legislature for a large chunk of its operating revenue. The public-private organization bolsters its budget with free advertising from private partners, but its cash revenue is overwhelmingly taxpayer-funded. That means the Legislature and governor hold sway over its future finances.
Visit Florida has been a darling of Scott and the Legislature in recent years. As most state agencies weathered drastic budget cuts in the past two years, Visit Florida saw its taxpayer funding more than double to $54 million.
At least one board member at Visit Florida said the Legislature has a sense of entitlement due to the large budget allowances it gives the tourism agency.
"I think if we've all learned anything from our past, it is that there is a certain entitlement from the Legislature because there's so much funding that they now allow us to have," said Carol Dover, president of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association. Dover, who was selected to be on the search committee, said the organization should "dot all our I's and cross all our T's" before appointing Seccombe as CEO, in order to appease the Legislature and Scott.
Toluse Olorunnipa can be reached at tolorunnipa@MiamiHerald.com or on Twitter at @ToluseO.