The Sedona City Council voted 6-1 in favor of the creation of a tourism advisory board to rubber-stamp city staff’s policy decisions regarding tourism at its May 10 meeting. Councilman Pete Furman was the lone dissenting voice.
As proposed by staff, the board would consist of 11 members serving staggered four-year terms, representing businesses, environmental groups, residents and other interest areas. The board’s functions could possibly include developing a strategic plan for tourism management.
Heather Hermen of Front Burner Media, whom the city has engaged as a consultant, suggested members of the board could both make recommendations on policy and act as spokespeople to the community.
The proposal to establish a board with fixed membership was written by City Manager Karen Osburn. It contrasts with the council’s expressed desire to explore the tourism strategies of other local municipalities such as Cottonwood, which, Hermen explained, has an advisory board “open to anyone in tourism who contributes to the tax base in Cottonwood to participate.”
Osburn explained afterward that the choice of a limited board with limited public comment periods was intended to provide “continuity in membership from individuals who commit to multi-year appointments and are invested in being there over time” as well as “ensuring broad diversity in representation, perspectives and opinions.”
‘A Strong Hand’
“Their work program, their agendas, the information that they receive and respond to are all provided by staff,” Osburn said of how city commissions and boards operate, the new TAB included. City staff “will to some extent manage the work and manage the group.”
“They’re not going to likely be having budget appropriation authority,” Osburn added, noting that the board’s suggestions may be used to inform staff proposals but will not be binding.
“I really want the city to be very strongly involved in managing the tourism program,” Councilwoman Jessica Williamson said. “I want the city to have a strong hand in this. I don’t want it to sort of become a thing in itself.”
The draft application for advisory board membership that council reviewed during the meeting listed 11 background questions for potential applicants. The questions would solicit applicants’ views on the effects of tourism “both positive and negative,” the major issues facing the city and board, the highest priorities for the city’s tourism management program, the city’s role in supporting businesses and the importance of branding and marketing.
“This is more questions than the other commissions we interview for, so this is really good,” Mayor Scott Jablow said.
Councilwoman Kathy Kinsella suggested adding a question on whether applicants have read the Sustainable Tourism Plan and Community Plan.
City Communications Manager Lauren Browne said the questions “will help make sure the most balanced of perspectives are chosen to participate on this group rather than not picking candidates because they lean one way or another. The whole point is to choose people who represent all sides of tourism including pro, neutral and against.”
Council agreed after discussion that applications will be vetted in executive session to eliminate unqualified candidates, to be followed by interviews with the remaining candidates in public. The final vote on candidates will take place in executive session.
Vacancies will be filled by a vote of the full council, in a departure from the usual procedure for filling vacancies on other boards, which are determined by a vote of the mayor, vice mayor and board president.
Vice Mayor Holli Ploog and Councilman Brian Fultz both referred to the three-person appointment procedure as “rubber stamping.”
‘Way Too Fast’
Furman objected to the entire proposal and expressed a lack of confidence in the advisory board’s ability to focus on developing ideas instead of self-perpetuation.
“Little damage will be done by us not making these decisions yet today,” Furman said. “Everyone knows the metaphor about the horse and the cart. It seems to me that we’re asking the horse to design the cart. You got to know, when you ask a horse to design the cart, they’re going to design a cart that’s meant to be pulled by anything other than horses.”
If council approved the board, Furman warned, it would “start on the path of creating one of the largest bureaucracies that we’ll have in the city … any group that’s been so empowered to meet and establish itself as an official group is just going to want to continue its existence and it will limit the potential of ideas that come in.”
Instead, Furman proposed that the city create a five-member work group that would include a council member, the city manager, a member of the community planning work group, a resident and a business representative. The work group would report to council once a month and would produce a final report on what direction the city’s tourism planning should take after six to 12 months. As part of this process, the group would review information on alternate tourism management strategies, including findings from the United Nations World Tourism Organization, the ASU Center for Sustainable Tourism and Jackson Hole, Wyo.’s sustainable tourism management plan, among other sources.
“We’re moving way too fast to create a structure that will be very difficult to alter if we decide a different structure is needed,” Furman advised. “We need much more time and thought about the structure, the mission.”
Although the remaining members of council agreed with Furman’s suggestion that the advisory board consider a wide variety of resources discussing possible tourism solutions, they rejected delays.
“There is the possibility of damage by not moving forward,” Kinsella said. “It allows things to start developing in a way that goes off and running on its own without the benefit of it being managed from the beginning.”
Ploog and Dunn stated that six months would be too long to wait to decide on the city’s next steps.
“This is our ‘Thelma and Louise’ moment as a community,” Dunn said. “We need to join hands and leap and just hope there’s something good at the bottom … We’ll be wrong, we’ll make mistakes and we’ll learn from our mistakes because we never learn from successes.”
“I don’t think we’re moving too fast at all,” Jablow said. “The businesses have not been promoted by us in years. I’ve heard this past year that many of the businesses are hurting … They know that the chamber and the council are divorced. They need to know that we’re going to move forward. Taking months to get up to speed with a five-person board — that’s not giving them confidence. We need to move forward with this plan.”
In its draft tourism management vision, the council stated that its primary goal for tourism management was reducing visitation to 2019 levels at most.
“We as a body are tasked by the public to be thoughtful and financially wise, and to have us all jump off a cliff together is super bad advice,” Furman said.
The council then voted 6-1 to make the jump