Brevard County commissioners look set to shake up Tourist Development Council membership

·7 min read

Brevard County commissioners have begun what could turn into a major shake-up in membership of the Tourist Development Council.

That's the panel that advises commissioners on tourism-related matters — including how to spend the Space Coast Office of Tourism's budget.

County commissioners voted 3-1 this week in favor of Vice Chair Curt Smith's request to replace his TDC appointee, Julie Braga, general manager of the Residence Inn by Marriott in Melbourne. Smith is putting Donald DeDonatis III, chief executive officer of the U.S. Specialty Sports Association in Viera, on the nine-member panel in Braga's place, effective immediately.

Brevard County Commission Vice Chair Curt Smith said criticism of a County Commission vote by his Tourist Development Council appointee, Julie Braga, played no role in his decision to replace her on the advisory board.
Brevard County Commission Vice Chair Curt Smith said criticism of a County Commission vote by his Tourist Development Council appointee, Julie Braga, played no role in his decision to replace her on the advisory board.

One and possibly two other commissioners also may remove their TDC appointees in the coming weeks.

And — in what would be a drastic change in the makeup of the TDC — several commissioners are interested in asking the Florida Legislature to change the state's requirements for tourism boards, so that the panels do not have to have a specific number of hotel officials or other collectors of the tourist development tax as members.

Changing the membership: County Commissioners Pritchett, Smith replacing their Tourist Development Council appointees

Grant for Driftwood's hotel: Brevard County Commission OKs $30M marketing grant to Cocoa Beach Westin hotel project

Currently, Florida Statutes require that three to four members of the TDC be collectors of the tax, which in Brevard County is a 5% charge added to the price of hotel rooms and other short-term rentals like vacation rentals and recreational-vehicle park accommodations. Brevard County Code sets that requirement at three members.

The apparent shake-up of the council follows a dispute between county commissioners and TDC members over a commission decision to give Driftwood Capital a $30 million grant to help market the Westin Cocoa Beach Resort & Spa it is building off State Road A1A.

Most TDC members opposed the grant to Driftwood of up to $1 million a year over 30 years, saying it is unfair to others in the hotel industry and would hurt the overall county tourism marketing program.

County commissioners, however, say the moves to change the TDC membership have nothing to do with the TDC members' opposition to their Driftwood decision.

While Smith said he didn't care for Braga's comments during a recent TDC meeting, in which she said there was "shock and awe" in the community in reaction to the County Commission's 3-1 vote supporting the Driftwood grant, he was quick to add that her remarks played no role in his decision to remove her from the advisory board. Braga also chaired the TDC's Beach Committee.

Smith said he wanted someone involved in a tourism-related business in his County Commission District 4 on the board. DeDonatis fit the bill, as USSSA's youth and adult baseball and softball events at the USSSA Space Coast Complex bring extensive business to local hotels, restaurants and attractions.

County Commissioner Rita Pritchett also wants to replace her appointee, TDC Chairman Tom Hermansen, a hotel owner in the Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral area and current TDC chairman.

Pritchett had planned to nominate Therrin Protze, chief operating officer of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. The Visitor Complex is in Pritchett's County Commission District 1 and is considered Brevard County's most popular paid tourist attraction.

But Pritchett's move was stymied by the county rules that require three collectors of the tourist development tax to be on the TDC, as she would be replacing one of the remaining three TDC members in that category.

The Courtyard by Marriott Titusville-Kennedy Space Center hotel is operated by Delaware North. But because Protze is not directly involved in the hotel, he would not qualify to meet the three-person quota.

So Pritchett said she plans to tap a manager of that hotel instead to replace Hermansen, who also has been critical of the County Commission vote on the Driftwood grant.

"This isn't personal," said Pritchett, who is the County Commission's representative on the TDC. "It's about getting a voice for north Brevard on the (TDC) board, and I'm going to work hard for doing that," as well as working to get more geographic diversity on the TDC and spreading the tourist aid throughout the county.

Tobia voted against Smith's proposal to remove Braga from the TDC during her term, saying Braga is "a hard-working individual who has done a good job, by all accounts, on the TDC."

He also previously voted against the marketing grant to Driftwood.

Potential conflicts

DeDonatis' company, USSSA, has contracts with Brevard County related to the lease of the stadium complex and for reimbursement out of tourist development tax revenue for stadium maintenance.

At the advice of the county attorney's office, DeDonatis signed a conflict of interest waiver statements that would allow him to serve on the TDC, even with those potential conflicts.

But interim County Attorney Christine Schverak later decided DeDonatis did not have to sign the waiver after all, unless there was a new contract or a contract modification between the county and USSSA.

Such a waiver would have required approval of all four sitting county commissioners, and Tobia said he would not have voted for it, thus blocking the appointment.

But DeDonatis' appointment to the TDC — without a vote on the waiver — required approval of three of the four commissioners.

Smith said the "TDC benefits greatly" from DeDonatis' company being in Brevard County, "so I just thought he would be a tremendous asset. And that's why I've appointed him."

More flexible membership

County commissioners on Tuesday unanimously approved having Commission Chair Kristine Zonka send a letter to the Brevard County delegation to the Florida Legislature, asking for greater flexibility in the composition of the TDC membership so that fewer than three collectors of the tax — typically hotel owners or managers — need to be on the advisory board.

"The board, by (current) design, is one big conflict. If you have a board full of hoteliers — nice guys or not — they're going to make decisions for their own special interests," Zonka said during the commission's discussion of the issue.

"So, I think, perhaps the Legislature loosening, bringing forward some changes in the state statute — that would allow for a more broad acceptance of members that would qualify," Zonka added.

Zonka and Pritchett have indicated that some TDC members seem too focused on the interests of the Cocoa Beach/Cape Canaveral tourism corridor at the expense of other parts of the county.

"We can talk about bikinis and beaches," Zonka told the other commissioners on Tuesday. "But, honestly, I didn't see anybody rushing here to come to the beach to see a bunch of girls in bikinis. They were coming here to see Artemis."

Zonka said she will keep her options open on what do do related to her TDC appointment, depending on what's needed to meet state and county requirements related to the number tourist tax collectors and non-collectors on the TDC.

Giles Malone, a partner in the Space Coast Daily media company, as well as a partner in an event and sports management business, is one of Zonka's current appointees to the TDC. His term expires at the end of this year. Malone — who chairs the TDC's Capital Facilities Committee — also is counted as a collector of the tourist tax through his sports event business.

Another Zonka appointee is Christy Galzerano, general manager of the Doubletree/Hilton Garden Inn Oceanfront Hotel in Cocoa Beach.

Tobia has said he would not change his appointee, Brevard Zoo Executive Director Keith Winsten, who chairs the TDC's Marketing Committee.

The current collectors of the tax on the TDC are Galzerano, Hermansen and Malone.

The current non-collectors of the tax who are involved in the tourism industry are DeDonatis, Winsten and Larry Jarnes, an appointee of former County Commissioner Bryan Lober, who resigned his commission seat on April 1. Jarnes is president and chief executive officer of Northboro Builders, which develops commercial properties, and chairs the TDC's Sports Committee.

The other three slots on the TDC are for a county commissioner (Pritchett), an elected official from Brevard's most populous city (Palm Bay Mayor Rob Medina) and an elected official from another Brevard municipality (West Melbourne Deputy Mayor Andrea Young, who also chairs the TDC's Cultural Committee).

In addition to having Zonka write the state legislators, county commissioners also unanimously agreed to a request by Tobia to schedule a public hearing on making Brevard County Code coincide with Florida Statutes related to TDC membership requirements.

Dave Berman is business editor at FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Berman at Twitter: @bydaveberman.

Support local journalism and journalists like me. Subscribe today.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Brevard County commissioners plan for changes to tourist advisory panel