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  1. Pinellas

Pinellas commissioners oppose privatizing Visit St. Pete/Clearwater tourism bureau

Lack of oversight could lead to troubles like at the construction board and local job centers, they say.
David Downing, the CEO and director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, attended his last Pinellas County Tourism Development ahead of his resignation for the tourism agency on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (SARA DINATALE | TIMES
David Downing, the CEO and director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, attended his last Pinellas County Tourism Development ahead of his resignation for the tourism agency on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. (SARA DINATALE | TIMES

As Pinellas County's tourism bureau faces a spending review, most of the County Commission opposes turning the agency into a private entity — regardless of how much tax dollars it collects.

The declarations from a majority of the seven-member commission come two weeks after Visit St. Pete/Clearwater CEO David Downing said private tourism offices have more flexibility because they're not subject to Florida's Sunshine Law.

"We need more control over what goes on, not less," said commissioner Pat Gerard. "We've talked about getting more information on what they do."

Commissioners pointed to controversies in 2017 and 2018 to highlight what happens when agencies spend tax dollars without oversight or accountability.

In 2017 and 2018, the Tampa Bay Times exposed how the leaders at the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board and CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay, two local job centers, operated the agencies like personal fiefdoms.

Neither leader answered to any public official. The construction board failed to follow state rules and didn't protect homeowners from unlicensed contractors. A 2018 state law ended the agency's independence and county government took control. The job centers' leader reported phony placement figures to the state, and employees accused him of a romantic relationship with his top aide. The FBI is now investigating.

The Pinellas tourism agency collected $60 million in bed taxes last year and operated a nearly $40 million budget. Each figure tops the budgets of the troubled agencies.

"We should keep it public as much as possible," commissioner Charlie Justice said. "We're seeing a lot of successes by the way we have it."

Strict oversight isn't the norm among other marketing pros in county positions like the one Downing is exiting — they often involve public-private partnerships.

This month, Downing, who earned $215,000 annually, resigned days after the Times interviewed him about spending. He charged more more than $300,000 on an expense account in recent years and took vacations but claimed work hours for the trips. His last day is Friday.

Assistant County Administrator Paul Sacco, Downing's immediate supervisor, said he failed to properly monitor Downing.

As a result of the Times' inquiries, County Administrator Barry Burton, who started the job in November, said he is conducting a top-to-bottom review of all policies at the tourism agency. He plans to name an interim director on Friday.

Still, commissioners Dave Eggers and Kathleen Peters say the agency needs better oversight.

Eggers called it a "unique department," but said the county needs to "tighten its controls." He would like to see monthly reports.

"I like the public system we have," Eggers said. "Going private is nothing I am interested in."

Commissioners Ken Welch and Janet Long each said they would like to see comparisons to what a private agency would look like in Pinellas.

"I don't see a compelling reason to privatize," Welch said in a text message, adding: "I don't see support for that."

Across the bay in Tampa, Hillsborough County's tourism marketing is handled by nonprofit Visit Tampa Bay. Under that setup, that agency is not required to disclose as much detail about how it spends bed-tax dollars.

Visit Tampa Bay — like its counterparts in Miami, Kissimmee and Orlando — isn't subject to the same public record laws as Visit St. Pete-Clearwater.

Another unique aspect in Pinellas is the Tourist Development Council.

It includes a mix of private company heads, elected officials and other civic leaders who work closely with, or in, the tourism industry. The board votes primarily to allocate shares of $1.5 million to events that bring tourists to the county and approves the general operating budget of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater.

Each year, the chair of the County Commission also heads the tourist council. Commission Chair Karen Seel said she's "not in favor of privatizing. It's public dollars. It's best to have it be a public agency.

Long said the tourist council is part of the problem.

"You have the foxes guarding the henhouse," she said. "They think they are the decision makers. They're not."

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente.

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