The Public’s Right to Know

 

Al Higginbotham

Al Higginbotham

 

 

Eight weeks.

That’s how long the Tampa Bay Times has possessed information it deemed critical as belonging in the public domain. The credentials and resumes of 83 applicants for the Museum of Science and Industry’s CEO were pried loose following litigation and protracted out-of-court negotiations between the Times and the attorney for MOSI.

Since then: crickets.

The Times devoted significant news and editorial space in blasting the Tampa museum’s refusal to disclose its records before filing suit. The professional pedigree of CEO Molly Demeuleneure was called into question. Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill reportedly took a potshot from his perch, asserting MOSI’s incumbent leader was only adequate “to keep the lights on.”

In the three months between the filing and MOSI’s surrender of the applications, the Times unaccountably took a more benign approach toward Demeuleneure, as has Merrill. The about face wasn’t based on improved performance as various Bay area media outlets have reported a seemingly unending series of managerial gaffes culminating in a severe fiscal crisis at MOSI.

Over the years, Hillsborough County has showered the museum with millions in public funding. Yet, the taxpayers, who stand to be on the hook for millions more, remain in the dark thanks to the Times.

Demeulemeure lies at the center of the maelstrom. Her initial hiring in 2012 and subsequent promotion had nothing to do with education, qualifications, a record of accomplishment or other traditional metrics. Demeuleneure oversaw the demise of G.WIZ, a children’s museum in Sarasota. Under her stewardship, donors who had supported the museum for years felt disillusioned, betrayed, and angry about astonishingly poor fiscal management. It was discovered after Demeuleneure’s departure that funds earmarked for creating new exhibits were used for day-to-day operations. Less than five months later, G.WIZ shut down.

That dismal track record has been replicated at MOSI. In the past two months alone:

* Former MOSI board chairman Robert Lang sued the museum, claiming misuse of a $1.4 million donation. The suit notes that MOSI’s relocation to downtown Tampa would violate the terms of the donation. The county’s new liaison, Commissioner Al Higginbotham said the lawsuit was the only item discussed at a MOSI board meeting two days ago. The relocation, though an integral part of the lawsuit, did not come up, according to Higginbotham.
* A museum employee resigned alleging MOSI understaffed its zipline course and the person in charge was not trained or certified to work it. A Channel 8 investigation verified the claim. “My worst fear is that someone is going to get injured or killed,” said the employee.
* The MOSI board requested a $400,000 loan from Hillsborough County to cover payroll and other costs. The commission agreed but attached conditions. MOSI rejected the loan citing the conditions as “too onerous.”
*The museum’s IMAX Dome Theatre was closed two months for repairs as MOSI continued to promote the new Star Wars movie. Taxpayers footed the bill for repairs under an agreement with Hillsborough County. MOSI lost revenue during the closure but the theatre will be ready for the much-heralded premiere, according to a spokesperson.

Demeuleneure joined MOSI as vice president of development in 2012 and was named interim president in August 2014. MOSI’s board lifted the interim tag in June, less than two months after Tampa businessman Jeff Vinik disclosed he was looking at relocating the museum to his billion dollar downtown development.

The job description for MOSI CEO calls for a “Master’s degree or equivalent experience.” Demeuleneure attended Edison Junior College in Ft. Myers and never attained an Associate’s degree. She was a professional ballroom dancer for years.

Instead of examining the credentials of CEO candidates and reporting how many applicants were actually less qualified than Demeuleneure, the Times had the temerity to publish that she was promoted to interim president after an 11-month, nationwide search “that Merrill and other county officials said yielded an unimpressive slate of candidates.” One would love to know what occurred after the filing of the open records lawsuit to derail the Times’ interest in and Merrill’s criticism of an obviously defective vetting process.

Another irony: The Tallahassee-based First Amendment Foundation, the state’s public records and open meetings watchdog, just announced it is considering a partnership with The Poynter Institute, owner of the Times Publishing Company. It’s one thing to uncover Government in the Sunshine Law violations and gain access to records; it’s another to exercise journalistic chops and inform the public.

In an editorial dated Oct. 22, the Times acknowledged the museum board made the applications for CEO available. The suit remained open, the Times said, because the records were not made available to the general public.

Floridiocy can attest to that as factual. We made a Public Records Request to the Museum and were denied by Communications Director Shannon Herbon on the advice of MOSI attorney Thomas F. Gonzalez. Herbon suggested contacting Gonzalez if we wanted to pursue the matter. We did.

Gonzalez, who specializes in labor law, refuted our contention that by handing over records to the Times and also offering them to the Tampa Tribune last week, he essentially acknowledged that the museum is subject to the Government in the Sunshine Law. Asked if his client was promised certain considerations in exchange for the records, Gonzalez said, “I am not going to discuss that with you.”

The most likely source of funding for MOSI’s relocation will be local and it will cost millions. Taxpayers should be privy to the machinations at MOSI that brought the museum to the brink of more public bailouts.

The Hillsborough County Commission has also eluded responsibility for the MOSI debacle. Its chairman, Les Miller who was museum liaison until two weeks ago, told Floridiocy he did not know the vetting process that resulted in the controversial hire. Miller couldn’t remember if he attended the MOSI board meeting when the CEO appointment was ratified.

Higginbotham, Miller’s successor, declared he intends to scrutinize MOSI records to determine its viability. He requested and received minutes of the past “ten or twelve” board meetings. “Everything I asked for.”

The Times recently ran a series about the neglect of Pinellas County public schools entitled “Failure Factories.” The newspaper management might look in the mirror to find another one.

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