Walton County Tourist Development Council ouster tied to marketing expenditures

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH — Some apparent confusion over the Walton County Tourist Development Council's spending on marketing the county as a tourist destination appears to be a central factor in Tuesday's ouster of Jay Tusa, who had been executive director of the county agency since 2016.

The TDC is funded through a 5% tax on accommodations charged to visitors to South Walton that brings in millions of dollars each year.

Tusa's contract was terminated Tuesday, effective immediately, by a 3-2 vote of the County Commission. Commissioner Mike Barker, who made the motion to fire Tusa, was joined by Commissioners William "Boots" McCormick and Danny Glidewell. Voting against the termination were Commissioners Tony Anderson and Trey Nick, the commission's chairman.

Walton County commissioners voted narrowly Tuesday to terminate the contract of Walton County Tourist Development Council Executive Director Jay Tusa. The move came just a couple of months after commissioners heard a request from the TDC board asking them to consider a raise for Tusa.

The latest:Walton commission terminates contract of TDC Executive Director Jay Tusa

Previously:Walton County to consider raise for TDC executive director currently making $152,159

Barker did not return a Thursday telephone call and a separate text message seeking comment on the decision to terminate Tusa's contract. None of the other four commissioners, with the exception of Anderson, returned telephone calls or text messages.

In a brief Thursday interview, Anderson merely stood by comments he made at the commission meeting, which included, "We've asked a man to do a job. He's done a job, and we're going to fire him. I think that's a terrible mistake."

At Tuesday's commission meeting Barker said, "We've had a lot of things come to light on what TDC ...  funding can be spent on, what it can't be spent on, what can be spent on advertising, what can't be spent on advertising.

"I think there's some information that has not been exactly accurate that has been given to commissioners and to the public on what those funds can be spent on," Barker added. "I think that is a responsibility of the TDC director to stay up on the law, stay up on the information to know what can and can't be done in that department ... so they can advise the public and advise us in an accurate manner. That's not anybody else's responsibility but that director."

The vote to end Tusa's contract came in the wake of a recent commission meeting at which David Demarest, the TDC's director of marketing and communication, told commissioners that the agency is required to spend 40% of its revenue on marketing the county to tourists. For the current fiscal year, Demarest said in a Thursday interview, 43% of the TDC's budget is earmarked for marketing-related expenditures.

'That doesn't apply to this county'

That position, however, was countered at a separate commission meeting by interim county counsel Clay Adkinson, who also has served for some years as the TDC counsel. Under public questions regarding the amount of money the TDC is required to spend for marketing, Adkinson said the 40% requirement only applies "if you are attempting to use one of the more recent (state) legislative enactments which is to construct basically public facilities, which we would call capital improvements."

"The county has not endeavored to do that with TDC dollars yet," Adkinson continued, adding that "if you attempt to spend monies for those public facilities, identified by the statute ... then, yes, you do have to have that 40% threshold ... ."

However, Adkinson added, "that doesn't apply to this county at this point in time. It could in the future, but right now you're not at that stage."

Visitors enjoy the beach in Walton County. Walton County commissioners voted 3-2 Tuesday to terminate the contract of Tourist Development Council Executive Director Jay Tusa, apparently due in part to the agency's spending on marketing the county to tourists.

Tusa did not return a Thursday telephone call and a separate text message seeking comment on the TDC's spending on marketing and on his ouster from the agency.   

Questions about the TDC's spending on marketing have become acute in recent weeks, as county officials and the general public have wondered in commission meetings and elsewhere whether TDC dollars might better be used on beach safety initiatives.

That interest in steering significant additional TDC funds to beach safety initiatives has come in the wake of the recent drownings of four tourists due to dangerous surf conditions and in connection with what local public safety officials have called a general resistance of many visitors to stay out of the water when the beach flag warning system indicates that surf conditions are too dangerous.

Demarest said Thursday that he was surprised by Adkinson's statements on marketing spending by the TDC, explaining that the 40% spending level "has long been the understanding that the TDC and the BCC (the Walton County Board of County Commissioners) has operated under."

"Certainly, (county) staff and the community has been saying that in previous TDC meetings" without being countered, Demarest added.

'It's not up to us ...'

"It's not up to us to make the legal interpretation," Demarest continued, going on to note that the 40% level of spending on marketing predated Tusa's arrival as the TDC's executive director.

Adkinson did not return a Thursday telephone message left at his office seeking additional comment.

Going forward, Demarest said Walton County administrators will watch over the TDC while a search is conducted for a replacement for Tusa.

Demarest said Nick came to the TDC's offices Wednesday for a "courtesy visit to see how we were doing."

"He reiterated the importance of the TDC and the job we have to do," Demarest said.

Meanwhile, the county already has begun its search for Tusa's replacement. The day after the commission decision, the careers page on the county's website listed the executive director's job, noting a salary range of $84,312 to $200,000. Tusa's salary was $152,159 annually, but the TDC board had been working to have the commission give him a raise. 

More from Walton County:Walton County taking a measured approach for the right developer for tourism app

According to the announcement, the job — open to both internal and external candidates —  requires a bachelor’s degree in marketing, advertising, business, management, public relations or related field, along with seven or more years of experience in destination marketing or economic development, including program management experience and experience as a senior executive overseeing destination marketing "with a demonstrated record of success in destination marketing and capital planning."

An equivalent combination of education and experience also may qualify a candidate for the position, according to the job posting, which will remain active on the county website until June 12.