SANTA ROSA INSIDER – Regional Planning Council Hosts $202K “Workshop”

Posted on April 17, 2024 by EDITORIAL BOARD

What a soiree it was for Emerald Coast Regional Council’s board workshop! More than $202,000 was spent on the event, which took place in early February at Hotel Effie in Miramar Beach.

The council, an intergovernmental agency, hosted its February 2 monthly board meeting, starting at 1:30 p.m., discussing common regional transportation challenges and solutions. Afterward there was a joint meeting of three area transportation organizations.

But after the meetings ended, the party was on! The Zeros 80’s cover band was flown in from Kansas City to perform. That cost was $12,993.37, although there was a $5,000 sponsorship toward it. 

Emerald Coast Regional Council CEO Austin Mount dressed up as a fallen angel during the event

But wait, there’s more! Other costs included:

  • $24,604.55 for audio/visual expenses;
  • $21,987.84 for hotel and meeting rooms;
  • $47,670.21 for food & refreshments, minus a $17,660 sponsorship toward that line item;
  • $1,340 for invitations, which were fully sponsored.

However, the Granddaddy of all the event’s costs was an “event coordination, consultant/professional services line item of $117,656. ECRC CEO Austin Mount during today’s April board meeting said the council is “down two people in outreach,” so an event planning business out of Ft. Lauderdale had been hired. He noted tablecloths were a part of that line item.

At the beginning of today’s ECRC monthly meeting, Milton City Councilwoman Marilyn Farrow and Santa Rosa County Commission Chairman Sam Parker asked to address the board about the event.

Parker, who drove home after the Feb. 2 meetings and didn’t stay for evening entertainment or overnight, made a motion to remove Mount as CEO. Walton County Commissioner Danny Glidewell seconded the motion to allow further discussion. 

Farrow spoke, describing Hotel Effie as a “lovely” venue. Well, it should be, pricing shows the rate there for a room in early February is around $275 per night. She said the event was “not frugal spending of our tax dollars.” Well stated, Mrs. Farrow. She also noted the event’s invitation seemed very expensive and postage alone was $2.65 per invite. But it wasn’t just expenses that concerned her. Farrow said “floor performers” during the evening entertainment for elected officials included women dancing “provocatively” in “very revealing outfits.” She said it was akin to a Las Vegas show and “inappropriate,” noting one local official brought his young son.

Okaloosa County Commissioner Carolyn Ketchel chimed in, saying she canceled plans to attend the event after receiving the expensive invitation because “something didn’t feel right,” stating the event seemed “way out of line” with government spending. Ketchel noted the Florida Panhandle is Conservative and elected leaders have to answer to their constituents. She noted that Mount has “done a very good job” but that the council should “reign in spending and not let it happen again.”

City of Destin Councilman Jim Bagby said the costs sounded “egregious” but that he wanted to find out more before he would be able to make a decision on whether or not to terminate Mount. Subsequently, Parker amended his motion to direct the executive board to investigate the event’s expenses and related purchasing process. 

Santa Rosa District 5 Commissioner Colten Wright defended the entertainment, stating some people have “moral views” which are more Conservative than others.

Gulf Breeze Mayor Cherry Fitch defended Mount, stating he has been an “incredible leader.”

Mount issued an apology, stating, “I am very sorry and sympathetic that some you feel the way you feel,” noting he had been aiming for a performance similar to Cirque de Soleil. He also noted he has authority to unilaterally approve expenditures up to $150,000 each and that no single line item of the event exceeded that amount.

He also stressed that the February event, which also included a Sat. Feb. 3 training “institute,” was intended to help roll out a “7-Layer Cake” plan toward Vision Zero, a goal of zero roadway deaths. The plan also includes carbon reduction and other efforts to improve travel along the U.S. 98 corridor. 

Toward the end of the meeting, Mount attempted to lighten the mood, pointing he had paid for a seven-layer cake on the lunch table with his own money.

The ECRC CEO should treat all the organization’s money as if it were his own. Stop hosting slumber parties disguised as “workshops.” Handle business then head back home. Don’t make pricey staycations out of it. I’m not even sure it was legal to pay for that band. What public purpose did that serve?