In this Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, drone aerial photo, boats pass underneath the new, left, and old, right, Seven Mile bridges in the Florida Keys. FLORIDA KEYS NEWS BUREAU

After the Monroe County Clerk’s Office rained criticism down on the financial practices of the Florida Keys’ tourism marketing agency – the Tourist Development Council (TDC) – the board behind the multimillion dollar marketers refused to fire its director on Tuesday.

The TDC board held a special emergency meeting Feb. 20 in Marathon to discuss how to respond to the latest county clerk’s audit that found questionable costs, reimbursement requests and billing by NewmanPR, the TDC’s public relations firm for the past 43 years. 

But on Feb. 20, when Monroe County Commissioner Craig Cates, who sits on the TDC’s governing board, made a motion to fire TDC marketing director Stacey Mitchell and give her four months’ severance pay, the rest of the board wouldn’t have it.

Cates’ motion failed 7-2. 

“Stacey has been through a lot with us,” said Rita Irwin, the TDC board chair. “There is a partnership and there is an oversight. The idea that this one person becomes a scapegoat bothers me. It is a group effort.” 

Cates said his motion wasn’t personal.

“This is not a scapegoat,” Cates said. “This is a business decision. We need a better director. We’re not blaming her. We’re moving in a new direction with a director with more expertise in that field.”

Only Cates and Key West Mayor Teri Johnston, who also sits on the TDC board, voted to remove Mitchell, who has been on paid leave since November, after the first clerk’s office audit of the TDC in about 20 years pronounced the agency as having failures in management. 

Released on Oct. 31, the audit prompted the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners to recommend suspending Mitchell with pay while an independent third party — a North Carolina-based accounting firm — fully reviews the TDC’s financial operations.

The TDC board members who represent the tourism industry – George Fernandez, Peg Laron, Diane Schmidt, Patti Stanley, Gayle Tippett and Rita Irwin — all voted against the firing, along with board member Tim Root, who chairs the Utility Board of the City of Key West. 

Many at the table, including Root, raised the idea of creating a chief financial officer position for the TDC in addition to a marketing director. 

“In a business where you get $4-5 million a month, it’s ludicrous not to have someone in place,” said Root, a longtime general contractor who’s now a construction consultant. “There should be a person who is solely focused on the money. That’s where our weakness is right now.”

Newman appears with his attorney

The TDC board called the special Feb. 20 meeting after a second clerk’s audit said NewmanPR had its own issues, including collecting reimbursement from the county through a company called Graphics 71 which Newman admitted to auditors doesn’t exist. 

But the meeting didn’t focus much on NewmanPR, whose president, Andy Newman, sat at the board table next to his attorney, Russell A. Yagel. 

In a 14-page response to the clerk’s office audit on NewmanPR, Yagel pointed out Madok’s team has contradicted the opinion of County Attorney Bob Shillinger, who on Nov. 8, 2023, told the BOCC he’d found no evidence of double-billing by Newman’s firm.

The spectators inside the meeting room at Faro Blanco Resort included Monroe County State Attorney Dennis Ward, who has his own forensic audit of the TDC underway. 

Mitchell, as the tourism marketing director for the Keys, is responsible for managing several budgets, a staff of about 13, and the contracted companies that handle the advertising, public relations and the TDC website. 

Irwin suggested leaving the door open for Mitchell to take another position on the TDC’s sales team, and said perhaps Mitchell didn’t have the skill set to run the entire TDC’s operations. 

“I don’t feel we should lose Stacey as part of our sales team,” Irwin said. 

After years as the TDC’s sales director, Mitchell was promoted to the top post in September 2017. She started shortly after Hurricane Irma made landfall in Cudjoe Key as a Category 4 storm, devastating parts of the Lower Keys and Marathon. Her annual salary is $205,749. 

The board’s majority didn’t see any advantage to deciding Mitchell’s fate at this time, with audits pending.

Steve Robbins said changing the TDC director at this time isn’t going to suddenly change the public’s opinion about the tourism agency. Many already think the Keys has enough tourism and doesn’t need more advertising, he said.

“We’re going to continue to advertise,” Robbins said. “Florida Keys tourism is our economy. Ultimately, a new director would be necessary.”

More audits are coming

Two additional audits of TDC partner agencies are in the works. The clerk’s office plans to release separate audits of Two Oceans Digital, which handles the TDC’s website and digital marketing, and Tinsley Advertising & Marketing, which does its advertising. 

One veteran Keys tourism leader said the TDC shouldn’t be the only ones under scrutiny in the Keys. 

“There seems to be a lot of blame on just the TDC,” said Jodi Weinhofer, president of the Lodging Association of the Florida Keys and Key West, who has worked closely with the TDC for 30 years.

“The process broke down, but you can’t blame it on this board,” Weinhofer said, from the spectator seats. “Nobody seemed to see these things falling through the cracks. This was on a lot of different levels with a lot of people signing off.”

The next TDC board meeting is set for 10 a.m. March 26 at the DoubleTree Resort in Key West.

Unlike the BOCC and other county board meetings, the TDC board doesn’t livestream their meetings or videotape them. They’re recorded on audio only. The Keys Weekly obtained a copy of the Feb. 20 meeting recording upon request.

Gwen Filosa
Gwen Filosa is The Keys Weekly’s Digital Editor, and has covered Key West news, culture and assorted oddities since she moved to the island in 2011. She was previously a reporter for the Miami Herald and WLRN public radio. Before moving to the Keys, Gwen was in New Orleans for a decade, covering criminal courts for The Times-Picayune. In 2006, the paper’s staff won the Pulitzer Prizes for breaking news and the Public Service Medal for their coverage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. She remains a devout Saints fan. She has a side hustle as a standup comedian, and has been a regular at Comedy Key West since 2017. She is also an acclaimed dogsitter, professional Bingo caller and a dedicated Wilco fan.