The Gulf County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted Tuesday to bring the Economic Development Council back under the umbrella of the BOCC.
With Commissioner Warren Yeager absent, the board followed the lead of Commissioner Carmen McLemore who requested the board reassume direct control of the EDC.
The current operational model the EDC – created when commissioners raised some of the same issues two years ago – is a consolidation with the Gulf County Chamber of Commerce that Yeager, as chairman in 2011, helped push to fruition.
That model included a nationwide search for a new director, Barry Seller, who relocated from Arkansas, as well as a new board that essentially started from scratch.
“We’ve done some movement (over the past five years) but not enough,” McLemore said. “I remember when the county had (the EDC). Alan McNair was the director and he had movement and I haven’t seen that from this director.”
Commissioners Ward McDaniel and Bill Williams, in his final meeting on the BOCC, both agreed.
“I for one don’t know what we have,” McDaniel said. “We have to know where the money is going and we can get more bang for the buck.
“For this thing to survive I think we need to bring it back under the county.”
Commissioner Tan Smiley, though, wondered about the starts-and-stops with the EDC.
This is the second time in five years that the BOCC has realigned the EDC roughly two years into a five-year pledge for funding. When Seller was hired the pledge was five years at $80,000 a year from the county.
The county has thus far budgeted just $20,000 this year, matching the five-year pledge originally agreed to by the City of Port St. Joe.
Before that five-year stretch, the BOCC had changed the alignment, director, board at the EDC or all three several times in the prior six years.
McNair left the employ of the county employ on less than positive terms, he said five years ago on his way out, feeling that he had been undermined by having to answer to five commissioners with varying agendas.
“How are we going to get going if we keep stopping in the middle of the street every time,” Smiley said.
Williams said it was fair question and also noted that if the five commissioners were polled on a direction for the EDC, five answers would likely be offered, an issue that ended McNair’s tenure.
Williams also noted that he did not see how the EDC could function on $40,000 it had been provided this year in public funding and wondered about the exact direction of the EDC beyond saying the county was “open for business.”
Smiley said that Sellers did not have a staff to speak of at the EDC and that he was being hamstrung by the lack of support in funding and manpower.
“This guy is doing everything from taking out the garbage to serving as secretary to cleaning up at the end of the day,” Smiley said.
Williams also cautioned that while bringing the EDC under the BOCC control might be a positive, he said the exact structure and scope of services and direction for the EDC would have to be something left to the incoming board to decide.
“I haven’t seen any return,” McLemore said. “I am not going to support throwing money at something we get no results from.”
Williams at one time during the discussion questioned whether Sellers was the man for the job but later acknowledged that he had no idea about the extent of the support system for Sellers and wondered what he could be selling to prospective businesses that would appeal to their bottom line.
He labeled the relationship between the consolidated EDC/Chamber as “adversarial.”
Commissioners said they had no specific problem with Sellers continuing as director of the EDC, but were unanimous that the consolidation model was not working and in their desire to bring the EDC under BOCC control again.
Williams and continuing to work for county
McLemore suggested that commissioners move ahead with some sort of agreement with Williams to continue to work for the county on issues pertaining to the BP oil spill after Williams departs office.
Smiley and McDaniel agreed that Williams was the commissioner most versed on the RESTORE Act which would bring fine money to the Florida counties impacted by the oil spill and that problems – in St. Joseph Bay, for shrimpers, the roe season for mullet – were already evident that McLemore traced to the oil spill.
He suggested that having Williams continue working for the county on issues such as RESTORE and BP fines would be a benefit.
Williams abstained from any vote and county attorney Jeremy Novak suggested commissioners should work with he and county administrator Don Butler on a scope of work and possible payment schedule for an individual to assist the county without specifying Williams at this time.
Williams’ final thoughts
Williams congratulated Joanna Bryan for winning the District 3 seat and said he had been honored to serve the board for the past eight years.
He said the time was now to move to another chapter in his life.
“It’s been an honor to serve,” Williams said. “It’s challenge. I think the community has come along. With the economy, like a lot of people I got crushed. It is time to move on and make a living. (Bryan) is walking into a better board than when I came aboard.”
Williams is moving to Tallahassee. He thanked staff and his fellow commissioners and was given a honorary plaque from his fellow commissioners.