Blind Squirrel Commissioner John Tobia Finds Nuts – Lots Of ‘Em.

A FloridaToday column written by “Governmental Editor Dave Berman” describes a part of the October 10, 2017 Brevard Board of Commissioners meeting this way:

Political Spin column: Questioning by County Commissioner Tobia like ‘Perry Mason’ show

Brevard County Commissioner John Tobia isn’t an attorney.

He just plays one on the County Commission.

At least that was the impression of some people who attended at the commission’s meeting Tuesday night, when the discussion came to

designating $14.4 million from the county’s 5 percent Tourist Development Tax for five tourism-focused capital projects within the county. The tax is charged to those who rent hotel rooms or other short-term rentals.

Within a span of 20 minutes, Tobia let loose with 34 questions directed at three county department heads about the projects, the application process, the tourism economic impacts of the projects and other potential funding sources. In many cases, Tobia launched into a new question before the county officials finished answering the previous question.

At issue was agenda item VI (B)(1) described as “Approval, Re: Tourism Community Development Plan Capital Projects.” The supporting agenda packet for this meeting can be found here, and the information on this particular agenda item begins on page 1123.

In short, the County is looking to spend almost $14.4 million dollars on five areas around the county using Tourism Development Tax Dollars. Those projects are:

Oars & Paddles Park & Pier ($199,495)
Palm Bay Nature Center & Campground ($1,700,000)
Cape Canaveral Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage Museum ($500,000)
Viera Regiona l Sports Complex ($5,000,000)
Titusville Multi-Use Sports Arena ($7,000,000)

With the background set, we now want to turn to what exactly happened that October 10th night.

You can watch this part of the meeting yourself starting at roughly 3:10:00 of the video available on the Brevard County site.

Space Coast Office of Tourism Executive Director Eric Garvey starts off the item reading the agenda packet description. That is followed by members of the public speaking in favor of the tax dollars being spent.

At approximately 3:55:00 Commissioner Pritchett makes a glowing comment on the spending (after all, $7,000,000 is going back into her district) and then makes a motion to approve the plan. That motion is seconded by Commissioner Barfield.

The fun and games with Commissioner Tobia 3:55:40.

As we watched Tobia’s questions. we were reminded of South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy, who is know for direct questions during hearings and not letting people wander off topic and give long answers without really answering the question.

Like Gowdy, Tobia started asking questions on basic things like research that was used to support the projects, numbers of people using the projects, sponsorship of the projects, outside and private funding of the projects and the assertion of increase in tourist dollars.

It is brutal to watch if one wants to believe that the County Commissioner and supporting boards and staff have done their homework on the issues.

Time after time after time, Tobia exposes through his questions and the answers of the people he is questioning, that they were either lying in statements and presentations to the Commission or had not done any type of due diligence on the facts.

For example, for the Oars & Paddles Park and Piers project, the report said that the project currently served 100,000 people. Tobia called Indian Harbour Beach in which the project is located and asked where that number of people came from. Surely Indian Harbour Beach would know.

They didn’t. Tobia said that they had no idea yet the number was given in the supporting documentation. It turns out that the number was just a number made up whole cloth. No one ever questioned the number or the validity of the number.

At 4:08:25 Tobia turns up the heat and asks that as the number of people using the Oars and Paddles dock is 100,000 annually now, and the people projected to use it annually in the future, where is the economic impact of over $17 million dollars going to come from?

In our opinion, it’s a great question. If the number of people who are going to use the facility doesn’t increase, where is the increase in dollars coming from?

Garvey stuttered and stumbled with no answer.

Commissioner Curt Smith interrupted to rescue Garvey and said the $17 million is what is being generated now by the Oars & Paddles Parks and Piers.

The problem with that answer is it is not supported by the document presented to the Commission.

On page 1155 of the agenda packet which is page 32 of the report prepared by the company “Market & Feasibility Advisors, LLC,” the table heading reads:

The following table summarizes the economic and fiscal impacts for the new proposed attraction developments. (emphasis ours)

It is clear that the report doesn’t support what Smith (and eventually Garvey) is saying. The numbers in the chart don’t match to what is being said.

Such inconsistencies should have raised all sorts of red flags to the Commissioners as well as to the staff that was presenting the agenda item and recommending it be approved.

Tobia is not our favorite person, but he had not only found a nut or two that needed examination, he found enough nuts as a blind squirrel to plant an entire forest.

For his efforts, he was attacked by the other Commissioners.

“Wow,” County Commissioner Jim Barfield said when Tobia finally ran out of questions. “I feel like I was in ‘Perry Mason’ going through that.”

(Realizing that many people probably didn’t get the reference to a television show that dates back to the 1950s and ’60s, Barfield had to explain that ‘Perry Mason’ was a courtroom drama.)

If Barfield was trying to make a point, it was a bad one. If he wanted to compare Tobia to Perry Mason, Mason “tried” 217 cases over the course of the television and movie career losing only once.

In other words, Barfield seemed to be saying that Mason was like Tobia and Mason was overwhelmingly right. Not exactly the point Barfield should have been trying to make if he disagreed with Tobia.

Then, getting back to the business at hand, Barfield said: “I don’t really appreciate how this inquisition is going.”

“But I’ll tell you what,” Barfield continued. “I don’t see anything wrong” with these projects.

Pritchett also addressed the way Tobia had asked the questions. She said she appreciated all the time and effort that the staff had put into the proposal and “allowing her to attend their meetings.”

Commissioner Isnardi also stepped into the fray talking about the way Tobia had asked the questions:

I just want to say that, you know, I want you to finish answering the questions,” Isnardi told Garvey, who took the brunt of the questions from Tobia. “I know it’s difficult because you have one commissioner asking you questions. I don’t want to interrupt dialogue. However, I don’t want you to feel like you’re … on trial. So I don’t think that that’s respectful. And I don’t think that does anything justice.”

Isnardi said Tobia was asking his questions in such a quick succession that she didn’t have time to take notes for possible follow-up questions.

Of course while Isnardi spoke about Tobia’s interrupting of Garvey, she never said a word about Smith interrupting Tobia.

As we said, Tobia seemed to be cutting people off who did not answer the question or who sought to make long statements to “yes or no” questions. It seemed that Tobia was interested in getting answers while Isnardi cared more about “decorum” and not caring one iota that Smith had interrupted Tobia while Tobia had the floor, which would be a violation of the Commission rules on decorum.

(Frankly, Isnardi’s complaint about not being able to take notes falls squarely on her. Tobia has no duty or obligation to make sure that anyone on the Commission was able to take notes. The solution is simple: write faster and take accountability for your failure and not place it on others.)

However, none of the Commissioners who attacked Tobia on his style of questioning, dealt with the substance of what Tobia was asking and the answers he got.

It seemed that it was more important to attack Tobia for his method to make sure the citizens didn’t focus on the answers.

Clearly style over substance carried the day which should not be a comfort to any resident of Brevard County.

Perhaps the whole shameful episode and not looking at facts was summarized in the actions of Chairman Smith who at the end of the debate asked for a motion authorizing the spending.

That would be the same motion that was made earlier by Pritchett and seconded by Barfield.

Oy vey.

In the end, the motion for the spending passed with four Commissioners voting yes and only Tobia voting against it.

We want to make clear that we are not taking a position on the spending. What we are concerned about is the lack of professionalism by the County Staff, the people who submitted applications for the funding and finally the Commission itself who was too bothered and offended with “Perry Mason” than to do the right thing by pausing and dealing with the legitimate concerns raised by the questions Tobia asked.

In watching the vote we were reminded of the famous quote from the movie Blazing Saddles:

“Phony baloney jobs” indeed.

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