Wendie Vestfall is no longer director of tourism for Charlotte County following what one commissioner on Tuesday called a “debacle” over a marketing contract.
Undoing a move proposed by Vestfall in May, the commission voted Tuesday to reinstate a monthly contract with Aqua Marketing and Communications of St. Petersburg, that they had just canceled. They cited extraordinary circumstances.
Vestfall was hired in early 2019. She came to Charlotte County from a historic tourist county on coastal Delaware. She could not be reached for comment.
Before they learned Vestfall had a prior work relationship with a marketing contract bidder, two commissioners grilled Vestfall at their May 26 meeting. She had asked them to terminate a longstanding $180,000 annual contract with Aqua. Instead, she asked the board to sign a one-time $45,000 contract with a national marketing firm called Streetsense of Washington, D.C.. She told the board the county would save money overall. The county could use the extra money for advertising, she said, and that there might not be enough tourism tax revenue to pay for a new annual contract.
Commissioners at the time agreed to terminate Aqua’s contract, although Constance said he thought Aqua had been doing “a fantastic job.” But the board postponed their decision on the contract with Streetsense.
Vestfall had worked with Streetsense in 2017 when they developed a campaign for Kent County.
On Tuesday, county administrators sent a press release announcing that current sports and marketing manager Sean Doherty is now interim tourism director. Asked about the status of Vestfall, county spokesman Brian Gleason said: “The county administrator wanted to move in a different direction.”
It was Doherty who this week asked the board to approve the same $45,000 contract with Streetsense, saying the county is behind other similar tourist destinations in marketing post-pandemic shutdown. Commissioners balked, however.
“Before we inadvertently terminated Aqua’s contract, were you aware of the communications between Aqua and the director?” Commissioner Chris Constance asked Doherty.
Doherty said no one in tourism was aware.
Streetsense staff were not at the commission’s meeting Tuesday, but Aqua’s President Dave DiMaggio was present. DiMaggio told commissioners that Vestfall had repeatedly rebuffed them since March when they began urging her to prepare for a reopening campaign after the start of the coronavirus.
Two weeks earlier, however, Vestfall said she asked Aqua for a recovery plan in March, and it took them 30 days.
This week, Constance called the situation a debacle and said he regretted ending Aqua’s contract.
“I have real problems with a lot of the testimony given at that (May) meeting that not only was it not factual, it was downright deceitful about the lack of performance. We terminated their contract based on false testimony. ... She was trying to get another company in under false pretenses.”
Assistant County Administrator Emily Lewis later said that Vestfall had asked for more staff members to participate in the bid review, but the county’s Purchasing Department wanted an odd number of reviewers, even though it was a point-based award.
Constance said the county must start keeping a record of how each staff members rates each bid.
Commissioner Joe Tiseo agreed, saying, “If you get the reputation of hey, you go to Charlotte County, you don’t get a square deal, why bother going. You reduce your pool of bidders.”
Commission Chair Bill Truex also expressed concern.
“This whole situation is very disturbing. It was upsetting to me. ... I still don’t know everything. That’s for administration to deal with.”
“There was not anything illegal that happened in this process,” Lewis told commissioners. “Administration was not happy with how it was handled. We took swift and decisive action.”