Embattled Tarpon chamber chief resigns

The Tarpon chamber president calls the parting "amicable."

By ELENA LESLEY, Times Staff Writer
Published September 14, 2007

TARPON SPRINGS - After fielding accusations of mishandling grant money and using what commissioners called "deliberate deception" to set up a petting zoo in Craig Park, chamber of commerce president Theajo "TJ" Davis has left her post.

Davis and the board of directors came to "a mutual agreement" about two weeks ago regarding Davis' departure, said incoming chairman Art Georgiou.

"We didn't have a problem with her and she didn't have a problem with us," he said.

Davis, who served as president since October 2004, called the parting "amicable."

"I have a new grandbaby and a different perspective," she said. "I decided I wanted to do something different."

But not everyone thinks the separation was so friendly.

"The chamber is trying to show everything is amicable, but nothing could be further from the truth," said Tim Dorr, a business owner engaged in an ongoing civil suit with Davis and the chamber. "The chamber is falling apart at the seams. It's just a disaster."

The chamber has certainly weathered its share of controversy in recent months.

An April memo released by the Pinellas clerk of the circuit court's internal audit division expressed concerns over the way Davis handled grant money for the 2006 Watersports Carnival and Illuminated Fleet Parade at Spring Bayou.

The chamber received a $30,000 grant from the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau for the event. The next year, it received a $40,000 grant. In August, Pinellas County commissioners voted against providing grant funds for the 2008 event.

Part of the 2006 money went to Davis' printing business, River Graphic, which contracted with the chamber for promotional materials. Auditors called the arrangement a conflict of interest.

Not only did Davis profit from the deal because River Graphic bought materials from another company and resold them to the chamber for profit, but she also may have overcharged the convention and visitors bureau for those markups and additional sales tax, the audit found.

Davis maintained the arrangement was perfectly ethical and that neither she nor her fiance, who co-owns River Graphic, profited.

At the time, she also dispelled rumors that she might leave the chamber. "I don't intend on going anywhere," she told a Times reporter in April.

"I've been the best chamber president this city has had."

Some in Tarpon Springs would disagree.

"The city has had some back and forth with TJ Davis," Mayor Beverley Billiris said. "All the discrepancies that have come before the city have pretty much been focused on her."

One of the most visible discrepancies centered on the application submitted for the 2007 Watersports Carnival.

Due to a confusing application from the chamber, city staff members said they accidentally recommended approval of a petting zoo and pony rides in Craig Park, mistakenly thinking they were green-lighting water floats.

When the issue came before the commission in May, officials felt the mixup wasn't an honest mistake.

"I think their screwup was intentional," Billiris said.

Commissioner Robin Saenger called it "sneaky and underhanded and deceptive."

Davis insisted she had merely "filled in the blanks."

Given time constraints, the city was forced to let the plans go forward, even though some commissioners worried animals might damage the park.

But commissioners agreed to draft a pointed letter to the chamber and scold members for what Billiris called their "lack of professionalism."

With a new president on the horizon, Billiris said she hopes the "chamber and the city can work together."

The chamber's board of directors appointed an interim president during their monthly meeting Tuesday. Georgiou said he expects it will take around three to four months to find a full-time replacement.

But vocal critics like Dorr say that won't solve all the chamber's problems. "This chamber has needed to clean house for a long time," he said. "I hope they don't stop with Ms. Davis".

Times staff writer Rita Farlow contributed to this report. Elena Lesley can be reached at elesley@sptimes.com or 727 445-4167.