CLEARWATER — Owners of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium are likely this fall to ask the county’s Tourism Development Council for millions of dollars of bed-tax revenue to help pay for ambitious plans for a new downtown aquarium. One of those council members, Jen Carlisle, was hired in April by the aquarium as director of tourism marketing.
Carlisle was working for a small Clearwater restaurant chain when she was appointed to the council in October. She has since agreed to abstain from voting or taking part in any discussion on the aquarium’s proposal.
But that has not satisfied some county commissioners, who warned that her presence on the board could create an impression that the aquarium received favorable treatment. The council, made up of local elected officials and representatives from the tourism industry, is an advisory board, but county commissioners typically approve its funding recommendations.
“I think it’s a problem, frankly; for me it’s about perception and the public trust,” Commissioner Janet Long said. “The aquarium is poised to come to the county commission for a lot of money.”
Commissioners this week, including Long, granted Carlisle a waiver of ethical conflict, a state provision that allows her to stay on the board even though her employer could directly benefit from its actions. The waiver would preclude her from voting on the aquarium’s proposal.
Commissioner Charlie Justice, the lone vote against awarding the waiver, said he does not question Carlisle’s integrity but is worried the public could be skeptical about any taxpayer dollars awarded to the aquarium, which originally proposed a $160 million facility.
“As Commissioner Long said, there is value in the perception of things. We want the perception to be as pure as possible,” Justice said. “My preference would be we don’t have a person on the board whose entity is going to get direct funding.”
Aquarium CEO David Yates said that Carlisle will not be involved in putting together the facility’s pitch to the tourism council and repeated that she will not participate in the council’s assessment of its application.
“Jen will have no role in discussion at all, period,” he said. “From a Clearwater Marine Aquarium side, we clearly want to make sure Jen has no direct role in that.”
The issue has highlighted a gray area in the law governing board appointees who are required to declare when they have a conflict of interest and to abstain from voting, but are not precluded from participating in any discussion before a vote.
That is a lower standard than for elected officials who must recuse themselves from both, said Jewel White, Pinellas chief assistant county attorney. Commissioners have asked county attorneys to look into drafting a similar requirement for appointees.
With record number of tourists flocking to Pinellas, the 5 percent bed taxes bring in more than $30 million a year.
By law, the money must go to nonprofits or municipalities for capital projects and events that drive up tourism.
The tourism council reviews funding requests and makes recommendations based on the number of visitors and hotel beds that projects are expected to generate.
That means the board, which includes hoteliers, often recommends funding events such as the St. Petersburg Grand Prix, an indirect benefit of their businesses because it fills hotel rooms.
City leaders, including St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, also sit on the council and could vote on proposals that benefit the communities they represent.
Commissioner Susan Latvala warned that introducing stricter guidelines could deter tourism industry leaders from volunteering to serve on the board, which was designed to take advantage of their expertise.
She added that the tourism council included members of the Dali Museum board when the council in 2010 bridged a funding deficit for the museum’s new building by approving $500,000 annually over five years beginning in 2015.
“It is a can of worms, and I don’t think we want to go there,” Latvala said.