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County Officials Propose a Raft of Reforms for the Publicly Subsidized Orlando/Orange County
 Convention & Visitors Bureau; Seeks Open Meetings and Restrictions of
 Travel Spending, Retirement Packages

By David Damron and Jason Garcia, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

February 21, 2009 - --Orange County Mayor Rich Crotty unveiled Friday a raft of proposed reforms for the publicly subsidized Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau that would restrict spending on travel and retirement packages and open up more top salaries and executive decisions to public inspection.

"It is important that the existing agreement between the County and the CVB be revised to provide greater transparency," Crotty wrote in a letter to visitors bureau Chairman George Aguel, a Walt Disney Parks and Resorts executive.

"This issue takes on an even greater importance in the current environment when our citizens view with skepticism the use of tax dollars by public and quasi-public organizations," Crotty wrote.

Crotty's recommendations for the visitors bureau, which mixes public and private money to market Orlando as a vacation and convention destination, come amid intense scrutiny of the organization following reports in the Orlando Sentinel of questionable spending.

Among the most controversial expenses: an $826,490 retirement package for former bureau President Bill Peeper; a nearly $103,000 send-off party in his honor; and a $9,271 business-class airplane ticket for the current president, Gary Sain, for a flight to Dubai on which two other local tourism executives flew in coach at a small fraction of the cost.

Crotty met with bureau leaders earlier this week before publicly revealing his plans. The visitors bureau immediately signaled it was open to the changes, though it said it had not yet reviewed them in detail.

'Very thoughtful'

"It appears that the recommendations are very thoughtful and in line with conversations our Board has had regarding the achievement of the important balance between competitiveness and transparency," Aguel said in a written statement.

Aguel added that the bureau looks "forward to working together with the Mayor and the County Commissioners to ensure the future needs of the industry, our community and the CVB are in alignment especially during these challenging times."

The Orange County Commission could discuss the issue as early as Tuesday. That's when commissioners, who expect to give the bureau roughly $30 million in hotel taxes this year, are slated to hear the results of an audit of the organization by Orange County Comptroller Martha Haynie.

Crotty on Friday followed multiple commissioners who have demanded greater public disclosure from the visitors bureau, which is organized as a private, nonprofit trade association.

In his letter, the county mayor calls on the visitors bureau to adopt "additional provisions governing the expenditure of travel funds" and "limitations on severance packages," as well as further disclosure of salaries and benefits for top managers at the bureau.

Crotty also says he wants changes in the composition of the visitors bureau's board of directors "to ensure greater diversity of both the board and CVB staff." And he said the bureau should post minutes recapping its board meetings on its public Web site.

Several commissioners applauded Crotty's plan Friday. But they also said they wanted to see further changes.

"I'm glad everybody's finally waking up, both the county and, hopefully, the CVB," said Commissioner Bill Segal, who, along with Commissioner Mildred Fern�ndez, wants an elected county official installed on the visitors bureau's executive committee. That is the narrow circle of board directors that makes many of the organization's most significant decisions.

Stewart: Open meetings

Commissioner Linda Stewart, who has called for remaking the visitors bureau into a completely public agency, said that, at a minimum, changes should include opening bureau board meetings to the public.

"I think we should be able to go in there and sit down and listen to what they have to say," Stewart said.

With at least four members of the seven-seat County Commission now publicly calling for greater transparency, changes at the visitors bureau appear inevitable. Fern�ndez said she sees little room for negotiation from the visitors bureau, particularly with summer budget talks approaching.

"I don't care what the CVB says," she said. "That's the direction we're going."

David Damron can be reached at ddamron@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5311. Jason Garcia can be reached at 407-420-5414 or jrgarcia@orlandosentinel.com.

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To see more of The Orlando Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.OrlandoSentinel.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

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