County Commission seeking more documentation of outreach efforts
Voicing frustration that she never had received documentation she had requested in June from the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Sarasota County, the chairwoman of the County Commission this week proposed changes to the county’s contract with the alliance for Fiscal Year 2013, to prevent a similar situation in the future.
Jim Shirley, executive director of the alliance, told The Sarasota News Leader he was “very supportive” of the changes the commission approved unanimously during its regular meeting on Sept. 12 in Sarasota.
Commission Chairwoman Christine Robinson, who represents South County interests on the board, pointed out during the board’s regular meeting in Venice on Sept. 11 that language was added to the contract with the alliance in the current fiscal year to provide for increased outreach to South County arts and cultural groups.
Nonetheless, she said, “when I asked for the actual appointment efforts, I was told both in a public meeting and in a private meeting with the Arts Alliance they would be providing that information to us. To this day, I have not received those efforts.”
Robinson had made the request for the documentation before the commission voted in July on awarding the annual grants to county arts and cultural groups. The funds come from the county’s tourist development tax revenue.
Robinson reiterated a point on Sept. 11 that she had made during the June discussion: “Last year, we actually saw a drop in the percentage of money going to South County arts groups.”
Shirley told the News Leader on Sept. 12, “We felt we did provide documentation” about the extra outreach efforts to South County organizations. Nonetheless, he said, the material “was not exactly what Commissioner Robinson was looking for.”
Among the changes Robinson sought in the proposed FY 2013 contract was a directive that the alliance staff produce documentation of its South County outreach efforts at the same time it presented its grant recommendations to the County Commission. Otherwise, the package would not be considered complete.
“I just want to see what efforts are actually being made,” she added. “They may be making great efforts, and I just don’t have that information.”
Commissioner Jon Thaxton said he was concerned about the contract language change indicating the package would be incomplete without the documentation.
“I think it just opens a can of worms, that this board is going to find themselves in a difficult situation,” Thaxton said. “I don’t believe there’s anything that requires the board to take action on the recommendations from [the alliance] if we deem any part of [the material] to be incomplete.”
He added, “This affords an outside or affected party to become an aggrieved party, if you will.”
Referring to the June recommendations package, Robinson said of the alliance staff members, “They came with nothing, absolutely nothing [about the South County outreach], and we continued [the discussion] to get those documented efforts, and they came back with three paragraphs, most of which was already contained in the contract.”
However, she said, “We were under the pressure of [arts groups] losing their budget money that they were depending on,” if the commission did not award the grants in a timely fashion.
Robinson added, “I need a way to let [the alliance staff members] know that if [they] don’t [provide the documentation, the grants] may not be approved and it’s not going to be on our shoulders.”
“We have that now,” Thaxton said. “We don’t need explicit authority to do that. … I don’t think this language can relieve the pressure on this board.”
Help for newer organizations
Commissioner Nora Patterson said, “What you really need is a warning as opposed to tying the hands of the commission.”
Patterson proposed further changes in the contract, to require increased outreach efforts to newer arts organizations that had not received grants.
“It’s rougher for organizations that haven’t previously participated” in the application process, Patterson said.
“Really, all you’re asking for is documentation of what [the alliance staff members] are doing and they’re paid to do,” she added.
“I pondered that as well,” Robinson said of Patterson’s suggestion. However, Robinson pointed out that the county was in its first cycle of a separate grant program for new and start-up arts and cultural organizations; that was why she had chosen not to propose additional language such as Patterson had suggested.
“It’s a very, very small amount,” Patterson said of those new grant funds.
Robinson agreed then that the change should be made regarding the newer organizations.
Robinson then asked County Attorney Stephen DeMarsh to assist with the modification of the contract language. Later on Sept. 11, DeMarsh reported that he had sent the proposed revisions to the alliance staff for review. The discussion was continued until the commission’s Sept. 12 meeting.
Robinson and Patterson suggested a couple of further tweaks to the language on Sept. 12, which DeMarsh said would be acceptable.
Patterson wanted to be clearer, she said, about the increased outreach to newer organizations that had not received grant funds. “The issue has been that they’ve been almost discouraged … from coming forward. I want them to be encouraged, not discouraged,” she said.
Thaxton said he still found some of the revised language to be problematic, but he understood the intent and would support the changes.
After the vote, Patterson said, “I hope that the Arts and Cultural Alliance takes this in good spirit. It’s not meant as a slam.”
Shirley told the News Leader, “We are very much in agreement with it.”
He added that he felt “just so fortunate” that the county had a “bed tax” that provided revenue for the arts. “This money comes from tourists who are here, not taxpayers,” he pointed out.
Along with the beaches, he added, the arts are very important draws for tourists.
Sarasota is “certainly considered to be the arts capital of Florida,” Shirley said.