Today, Orange County commissioners are slated to decide whether tens of millions of dollars in tax money can continue to be spent in secret.
We're talking about the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the not-for-profit agency that is slated to receive nearly $50 million in hotel taxes this year alone.
For years, this private agency has eagerly lapped up public money -- while shunning public scrutiny. The bureau, for instance, refused to say how much tax money has been spent on everything from executives' salaries and expense reports to dinners and travel.
But now, infused with more cash than ever, thanks to a recent hike in the resort tax -- and with financial scandals at visitors bureaus in other parts of the country making headlines -- county officials are finally talking about toughening up their contract with the CVB.
The vote on the new contract is scheduled for today. And some of the new provisions show promise. But it's far from perfect.
What to like
The bureau itself has agreed to divulge the salaries of a few more of its top executives. And the agency has toned down what was once an intense lobbying campaign to keep information from you.
The county has beefed up accountability and auditing requirements, asking the agency for more detailed accounting of its spending and an audit committee.
The county has included specific language that bans tax money from being spent on adult entertainment and gambling. One would like to think this was already common sense. But tell that to residents in Palm Beach and Fresno, Calif., where their CVB officials were caught doing everything from stealing money to spending it at Victoria's Secret.
What not to like
The CVB still wants to keep most of its salaries secret. No public agency works like that. And considering that the CVB has been known to provide its CEO with a compensation package in excess of $300,000 -- and who-knows-what for its eight vice presidents -- that's a lot of unknown money.
While the county has asked the CVB to beef up its audits and internal checks, there's no guarantee that specific and line-item details will ever be available for public inspection. Instead, county officials would have to ask for much of the information before you can see it.
Current plans do not call for turning the agency into a public one that would be subject to the state's public-records law. They should -- just like leaders did with the visitors bureau in Orlando's chief rival, Las Vegas.
Hopefully, Mayor Rich Crotty and county commissioners will ask a few more tough questions this morning before approving the contract.
Commissioner Linda Stewart plans to. She has long approached this matter the way most of you would -- trying to comprehend any legitimate reasons not to let the public see how its money is spent. Not surprisingly, she hasn't come up with many.
Stewart said Monday that she still hopes to push for more disclosure about salaries, contracts and spending in general -- with the information placed online for residents to see.
It's hard to think of why any of Stewart's peers would oppose her efforts. Would any of them really want to be remembered as the politician who voted to keep secrets about how tax money is spent?
Sure, the CVB has understandable concerns about not wanting to give competing markets sneak peeks on its marketing plans. So public-record exemptions can be allowed.
But it's hard to see how divulging things like salaries, contracts with consultants and expense reports would somehow put Orlando at a disadvantage for luring visitors.
New CVB chief Gary Sain said last week that he has tried to be responsive to concerns. And he's taken some steps in that direction.
But if the county isn't going to take the agency public and let the full "Sunshine" laws in, it should at least make sure that the public has enough light to see what's really going on.
What Would Walt Do?
Disney may need to take a timeout. The theme park recently raised parking rates to $11 a car on the heels of raising single-day ticket prices to $71 for adults and $60 for children ages 3 to 9. You're now talking more than $270 for a family of four to spend a single day at a park. And yet now comes word that the park may be experimenting with a system that would allow the customers who stay at the resort's most-expensive hotels to get through the ride lines faster than others. Yes, we now have the possibility of blatant classism . . . in Fantasyland. You know, ol' Walt himself once said: "You reach a point where you don't work for money." It's hard to imagine, though, that the average American working stiff will ever reach that point -- not if he has any hope of taking his family to one of Walt's parks, anyway.
Hey, politics is entertainment
In the past few days, Florida's political pages have started looking more like Daily Variety. We have Republican Gov. Charlie Crist traveling to Sundance to meet with Robert Redford about the environment; South Florida Republican U.S. Rep. Connie Mack announcing his engagement to Sonny Bono's widow, fellow GOP Rep. Mary; and Law & Order actor Fred Thompson announcing the Florida swing of his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination. No wonder complaints about "Hollywood liberals" have died down.
Scott Maxwell, who thinks it would take a slick politician to keep a straight face while arguing to keep information about public money away from the public, can be reached at 407-420-6141 or firstname.lastname@example.org.