February 2, 2012 —
On January 26, in one of its first actions, the new Sullivan County Legislature decided to issue requests for proposal (RFPs) for the county’s tourism promotion contract, which for some years has gone, without competition, to the Sullivan County Visitors Association (SCVA).
Considered in isolation, this might not be a bad idea. The county is financially strapped and in desperate need of innovative ideas to get the economy, of which tourism is a huge part, moving. To require entities to compete for county tourism promotion dollars, at least in theory, could be a way to spur creative and cost-effective thinking—by the SCVA as well as any others who submit proposals. There’s no reason the SCVA couldn’t be re-awarded the contract if it came up with the proposal that looks like it will be the most effective in getting bang for the county’s bucks.
But the context and timing of the decision raise some serious questions. To begin with, there is a simple logistical issue. The work of creating some of the SCVA literature and programs, such as the Travel Guide and driving tours, is already in progress. To go back to square one and start an RFP process at this time could delay things enough to throw a spanner into the county’s tourism promotion for the summer of 2012, no matter who gets the contract. (Indeed, in general, due to the long-term nature of the planning process, even if an RFP process were adopted it might not prove smart to send them out every year.)
Second, the SCVA isn’t a company with a few employees. It’s a 300-member organization of county businesses. What would happen to the members if the contract is reassigned? Would they be left out in the cold? Expected to join up with the new contract holders? And how would they feel about a change at the helm? This is not exactly a small detail, and would need to be worked out if the businesses with the largest vested interest in tourism, who actually generate the income awarded through the collection of the room tax, are not to be, in effect, disenfranchised.
In fact, the iffy status of the SCVA members, none of whom were invited to give their input on this issue, brings us to the next point: the process of crafting of this deal apparently flew in the face of the new legislature’s purported concerns with ethics and transparency. Not only did it come as a surprise to the SCVA members but, as detailed in the story on page 3, the new Democratic legislators apparently constructed this deal in caucus, out of view of the public and without input from the two Republicans legislators.
What happened to legislative chairman Scott Samuelson’s “open communication and transparency,” as described in his inaugural speech?
Also troubling, at least from the point of view of appearances, is the fact that a new non-profit tourism agency, called Sullivan County Tourism and Promotion, headed by three prominent Democrats (Neil Gilberg, Bill Liblick and Donna Schick, the new secretary of the Sullivan County Democratic Committee), registered in the county in January. That makes the decision to put the RFP out now look like it could be a back-room political deal, even if it’s not.
As we have noted in previous editorials, when it comes to conflicts of interest, what is important in a democracy is not only impropriety, but the appearance of impropriety. Because there is frequently no way to distinguish between cases in which it only looks like there is a conflict of interest and when there is a real one, the only way to avoid them is to avoid even appearances. Moreover, all human beings, even with the best conscious will in the world, are sometimes unaware of their own unconscious biases. And finally, if elected officials are allowed to decide for themselves whether they are committing an impropriety or not, voter trust will be lost. Especially ironic is the fact that one of the new legislature’s first orders of business will be deliberation on a new ethics code that would limit conflicts of interest more strictly.
So here we have what could be a good idea, but one that needs a lot more thought, planning, and transparency—which means incorporation of input not only from the other legislators, but from county businesses. The solution seems obvious. Don’t do it now. Use the next year to consult with all the legislators and SCVA members. Give everybody in the county who might have an interest in or ability to manage tourism dollars time to think it over and come up with fabulous ideas. Figure out what will be done about business member involvement, frequency of RFPs and the like. And once it’s been thought through and the public well informed, call for RFPs at a time that ensures that tourism promotion will continue to flow smoothly.