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By Mae Slater on
 March 28, 2024

Florida Tourism Official Stacey Mitchell unanimously terminated in alleged "political" firing

In a unanimous decision that has sent ripples through the Monroe County community, the Tourism Development Council (TDC) Board terminated its marketing director, Stacey Mitchell. The move comes after a county audit questioned her job performance and ethics.

Keys Weekly reported that the firing of Stacey Mitchell by the Monroe County TDC Board caps off months of controversy and audits critiquing financial management and ethical practices within the county's tourism leadership.

The concerns about Mitchell's role and the subsequent decision to dismiss her from her position began to unfold publicly with the release of a county audit five months prior to her firing. This audit raised significant questions about her job performance and her ethical conduct while in office.

Monroe County Faces Leadership and Ethical Challenges

It was during a regular TDC board meeting held at the DoubleTree Resort in Key West that the vote to dismiss Mitchell took place. The board, composed of various members including county officials, made its decision known in a manner that underscored the seriousness with which it viewed the allegations against Mitchell.

Leading the charge in the motion to dismiss Mitchell was County Mayor Holly Raschein, who sits on the TDC board by virtue of her elected position. Raschein's leadership in this matter indicated the level of concern at the highest levels of county government regarding the TDC's operations and Mitchell's role within it.

The Tumultuous Path to a Unanimous Decision

Mitchell chose not to attend the meeting where her fate was decided, a decision that left her representation in the hands of her attorney, Zachary Z. Zermay. Zermay vehemently defended Mitchell, suggesting that her dismissal was not just a matter of job performance but also a politically motivated action, especially in light of disputes over funding for Monroe County’s bicentennial celebrations.

The criticism towards the TDC and Mitchell intensified when Commissioner Craig Cates's request for funding a special drone show for the bicentennial was denied. This denial, according to Zermay, was a pivotal moment that led to heightened scrutiny and political targeting of Mitchell.

A Legal and Public Relations Battle Ensues

At the advice of Assistant County Attorney Christine Limbert-Barrows, the TDC board proceeded with Mitchell's firing without explicitly stating a cause. This recommendation was aimed at navigating the situation with minimal resistance, suggesting a strategic approach to mitigating potential legal and public relations fallout.

Mitchell had been on paid suspension since November 2023, indicating that concerns about her role and performance had been simmering for some time. This period of suspension served as a precursor to the final decision to terminate her employment.

Interestingly, just a month prior to her dismissal, there had been a motion to fire Mitchell initiated by Commissioner Cates. However, this motion saw limited support, only gaining backing from Cates himself and Key West Mayor Teri Johnston. This initial resistance to firing Mitchell underscored the complex dynamics at play within Monroe County's governance structures.

Audit Sparks Broader Questions on Ethical Compliance

The backdrop to the controversy was an audit released by County Clerk Kevin Madok on October 31, 2023. The audit was critical of the TDC leadership, highlighting issues of noncompliance and ethical concerns. This audit served as a catalyst for the ensuing scrutiny and debates regarding the TDC's management and Mitchell's leadership.

Further complicating matters was a Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting held on March 20, where the absence of Mitchell from meetings with forensic auditors was questioned. The hiring of forensic auditors by the county added another layer of investigation into the TDC's financial and ethical practices.

Commissioner Michelle Lincoln's inquiry about potentially ending the contract with Visit Florida Keys, the not-for-profit corporation serving as the TDC’s executive office, hinted at the gravity of the situation. Describing it as a “nuclear option,” this suggestion reflected the extent of concern over the management and ethical practices within the TDC.

Community Calls for Accountability Amid Tourism Concerns

County Mayor Holly Raschein emphasized the community's demand for accountability, noting the non-personal nature of the decision against Mitchell. Tourism, being the county's primary industry, requires leadership that upholds the highest standards of ethical and professional conduct, according to Raschein.

Zachary Z. Zermay, Mitchell’s attorney, painted a picture of Mitchell being unfairly targeted for political reasons, especially in an election year. This claim of political targeting adds a complex layer to the narrative, suggesting that the issues at play extend beyond mere job performance.

Following the board's vote, Zermay expressed his view that Mitchell's termination amounted to wrongful termination, a statement that indicates the likely continuation of legal and public debates surrounding her dismissal. This assertion of wrongful termination points to the complexities and potential legal entanglements that may arise from the board's decision.

Legal Recommendations and Financial Management Scrutiny

The recommendation by Assistant County Attorney Christine Limbert-Barrows to proceed with the firing without specifying a cause highlights the legal strategy adopted by the county. This approach, aimed at reducing potential backlash and legal challenges, reflects the delicate nature of personnel decisions within public bodies.

Despite the controversy, it's important to note that Mitchell's attorney defended her role as primarily focused on marketing, not financial management. This defense suggests a possible misalignment between expectations and the realities of Mitchell's job responsibilities, complicating the narrative surrounding her dismissal.

Looking Forward: Monroe County’s Tourism Leadership

The termination of Stacey Mitchell marks a significant moment in Monroe County's efforts to maintain ethical and effective leadership within its tourism sector. As the county moves forward, the fallout from this decision, including potential legal actions and the ongoing scrutiny of the TDC's financial practices, will undoubtedly continue to impact the local community and its key industry.

The call for accountability and ethical management within Monroe County's tourism leadership, echoed by County Mayor Holly Raschein and others, reflects a broader concern for transparency and integrity in public service. The community's reliance on tourism as its primary economic engine makes the efficient and ethical management of this sector critical to the county's overall wellbeing.

The situation remains fluid, with the potential for further developments as the community, the TDC, and county officials navigate the repercussions of this decision. The emphasis on ethical leadership and financial management within Monroe County's tourism industry underscores the challenges and responsibilities inherent in public sector governance, particularly in areas heavily dependent on tourism.

Conclusion: Monroe County's Path to Ethical and Effective Tourism Management

In conclusion, the unanimous decision by the Monroe County Tourism Development Council Board to fire marketing director Stacey Mitchell marks a pivotal moment in the county's tourism leadership saga. Initiated by concerns over job performance and ethics raised by a county audit, the move reflects broader issues of financial management and political dynamics within Monroe County. Despite the controversies and debates surrounding Mitchell's dismissal, including claims of political targeting and wrongful termination, the community's demand for accountability in its leading industry remains strong. As Monroe County navigates the aftermath of this decision and its implications for tourism management, the commitment to transparency, ethical practices, and effective leadership will be crucial in maintaining the trust and confidence of both the local community and visitors alike.

Written By:
Mae Slater

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