County commissioners are hoping three’s a charm when they set about next week interviewing the five candidates who have come forward to succeed Curt Blair as director of the Tourist Development Council.
At a special meeting Oct. 29, the commissioners opened five application packets in this third round of requests for proposals. The first two rounds each had to be cancelled and re-bid, after commissioners decided there were problems with how best to apply the rules fairly.
A surprise disclosure at last week’s meeting - that the four applications in the second round had been shared with outside parties - threatened to derail this third round, but after discussing the challenges, the commissioners decided to go ahead with the process.
After Blair told commissioners the contents of the TDC applications had been shared outside of the TDC board, Commissioner William Massey asked him who was responsible, and Blair said the county’s two mayors, Carrabelle’s Brenda La Paz and Apalachicola’s Van Johnson.
“It wasn’t me,” said Commissioner Cheryl Sanders, who chairs the TDC. “I know better, don’t I guys?
“Not all the TDC did that; it was the two mayors. I don’t know what their understanding was,” she said. “Don’t penalize all the TDC, don’t group us in.”
Blair took responsibility for the mistake, saying that he hadn’t explicitly cautioned the board members against disclosure.
“That’s probably my fault, that some information was out in the public,” he said. “I understand that now. The TDC has never had a bidding process like this before.
“I am not an attorney,” he said. “There were a couple of board members that let some of the applications out.”
Blair said afterwards La Paz told him she shared the applications with members of the board of the Carrabelle Chamber of Commerce, and Johnson confirmed he shared application information with at least one other person.
“How is this going to be fair?” asked Commissioner Noah Lockley.
“I’ve gone through all those applications,” replied Blair. “There’s relatively little there that’s going to benefit another applicant.
“There’s some background information but it's different for everybody,” he said. “It’s not anything anyone can cheat on.”
The four applicants in the second round were Forgotten Coast Creative LLC, led by Cutler Edwards of Apalachicola; D. Davis and Associates LLC, led by Deborah Davis of Apalachicola; Forgotten Coast Management Services Inc., led by Laura Graham, of Apalachicola; and the Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce, led by Donna Duncan, president.
Each re-applied in the third round, and were joined by Ann Howard, whose firm has both a Tallahassee and a Carrabelle address.
The commissioners discussed the matter extensively, and ultimately decided not to have the TDC board vet the applicants to see if they met the bid qualifications, which was the original plan.
“I think county staff ought to review them and let the board (of county commissioners) interview the applicants,” said Chair Smokey Parrish. “I don’t see sending them back to the TDC when people don’t have trust. I think nobody on the TDC should be involved in doing the criteria.”
The commissioners initially planned to have planning and zoning staffers Whitney Barfield and Mark Curenton review the applications, along with Blair.
Commissioner Ricky Jones suggested TDC board member Rex Pennycuff might be brought in, but the commissioners eventually substituted County Coordinator Michael Morón for Blair.
But Commissioner Noah Lockley refused to support the motion.
“I can’t go along with that,” he said. “This is a bad situation here and you’re bidding for a job. Somebody could thrive off of that; I can’t vote on none of that.”
County Attorney Michael Shuler said commissioners could ask the applicants if they received advance information, which would disqualify them on an individual basis. But he said that if the earlier applications were only reviewed by non-applicants, it would not call for rebidding.
“We’ve been out on bids for the TDC administrator since May, that is six months gentlemen, and we have to put a cap on this,” said Sanders. “This is something I want to get done before I leave office and I have but one meeting left.
“There’s still that opinion that the process is tainted,” she said. “I don’t want this board to feel like no matter who you choose, it’s going to be tainted.”
Shuler said disqualification of any applicant who received advance information would remove the taint, particularly since each had to sign an anti-collusion affidavit as part of the process.
“If we find someone who has the leg up by having that early information, we can disqualify them,” he said. “That would remove the taint from my perspective as attorney.”
The commissioners scheduled a 2 p.m. special meeting for this Tuesday, Nov. 13 to interview the candidates, after which they plan to make their selection.