The statewide grand jury report on public corruption addresses donations to an elected official’s charity of choice, and recommends needed legislation.
Like the grand jury, I am concerned about the appearance of a conflict where a county vendor makes donations to a commissioner’s pet charity. I am equally concerned when a county vendor, or a vendor in the county bidding process, makes a donation to the county, earmarking the donation for the benefit of a specific county project favored by a commissioner, at the request of a county employee.
At last Tuesday’s Collier County Commission meeting, I brought this issue forward for discussion, asking the commissioners to consider allowing the county attorney to draft an ordinance addressing such donations in the interest of promoting ethics in government. The board declined.
The manner in which donations were recently made by a county contractor to, and, accepted by the county was what prompted my request for public discussion. The facts surrounding these donations differ from the facts the grand jury considered, in that the donations are not being made to a charity, but rather to the county.
Paradise Advertising and Marketing Inc., the vendor, is a consultant hired by the county to develop and implement the county’s tourism advertising campaign. Last fiscal year, Paradise was paid $4 million by Collier County for its services, and then in December, Paradise gave $100,000 in two $50,000 checks back to the county earmarked for two county projects.
How did this happen?
As explained to me by Paradise’s owner during a break at Tuesday’s meeting, Paradise offered to discount its commissions owed by the county. Instead of accepting the discount, Paradise’s owner was asked by the director of Collier County Tourism to make the earmarked donations.
Fifty thousand dollars was donated to the county towards the county’s Freedom Memorial project which is supported by Commissioner Fred Coyle. The second $50,000 was donated to the Collier County Museum for the benefit of the Marco museum, a project supported by another commissioner. Both projects have had financial difficulties.
Paradise’s multi-million dollar advertising contract was up for renewal and was voted on by the commissioners at Tuesday’s meeting, about a month after these donations were made.
Had Paradise reduced its commissions as was offered, the county could have saved $100,000 in tax dollars or, the county could have spent the $100,000 for any lawful purpose (which might not have been two commissioners’ pet projects) voted on by the Board of Commissioners in a fully transparent and open meeting as is required by law.
Instead, the savings of $100,000 was eliminated by the process that was used — earmarked donations.
In short, what was done in this case circumvented the voting process that governs how public funds are spent, and puts into question why such donations are made. This, even more than the need for an ethics ordinance, should be the focus of the public’s concern.