Revelations that the former CEO of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater spent more than $300,000 on a county credit card since 2014 underscore the need for more scrutiny of this public agency. Pinellas County commissioners rightly recognized that and rejected a proposal to convert the tourism agency to a private entity. Privatizing an agency that spends public money would be exactly the wrong response.
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO David Downing abruptly resigned last month, days after the Tampa Bay Times requested records about his profligate spending, including on meals and alcohol, that went on with virtually no oversight. Downing then argued for privatization of the agency, reasoning that private tourism dollars have more flexibility because they are not subject to Florida’s Sunshine Law. That’s a true statement but a terrible idea.
Pinellas County has had more than its share of lessons lately in the importance of accountable government. The local construction licensing board and CareerSource job center both operated as independent fiefdoms whose missions were compromised absent vigorous oversight. Tourism is a bedrock of Pinellas County’s economy, and Visit St. Pete/Clearwater shares much of the credit. All the more reason it should be able to withstand public scrutiny.