Parks panel is hot topic in Eureka

Friday, June 8, 2018

The Eureka Springs City Council isn’t quite ready to tell the parks commission to take a hike, but the idea is on the table.

At the council’s May 29 meeting, Mayor Butch Berry presented an opinion from the Arkansas Municipal League regarding the commission’s involvement with the Eureka Springs Community Center Foundation on a greenhouse project. The document says the parks commission has the authority to “enter into contracts with persons, firms, corporations or organizations for the use of recreational park buildings or parts thereof,” and that includes the community center foundation.

Alderwoman Mickey Schneider said that means the commission is autonomous, and alderman David Mitchell disagreed. Mitchell said parks would operate well as a department under the city. He moved to dissolve the commission. After city attorney Tim Weaver advised against that, Mitchell rescinded the motion and moved to “ask the city attorney to draft up what is necessary to be done in the process of potentially looking at removing the parks commission and moving it to a department of the city with a director.”

Alderwoman Kristi Kendrick seconded the motion, and council members Terry McClung, Melissa Greene and Bob Thomas said they didn’t want to dissolve the commission. When McClung called for a vote, Mitchell said he wanted to amend his motion to clarify that Weaver would draw up documents and come back to the council for review before any action is taken. Berry said that amendment was unnecessary, and Mitchell withdrew it.

The motion failed by a 4-2 vote, with Kendrick and Mitchell voting for it and Schneider, Thomas, Greene and McClung voting against it. This week, the Citizen caught up with council members and parks officials to discuss the circumstances that led to the vote.

Reflecting on vote

Mitchell said Monday he brought the idea to the table because of the Municipal League’s opinion, saying he disagreed with Schneider’s assessment that the commission is autonomous. Based on the Municipal League’s opinion, Mitchell said, the council can dissolve the commission or remove an individual commissioner “just because,” so it’s not truly autonomous.

“They kept it up and kept it up saying the commission is autonomous, and that’s why I did it,” Mitchell said. “I did it to make a point. I knew when I made the motion, the motion wasn’t going to pass, but I wanted to make a very distinct point. It was nothing more than a strategy to emphasize again to everybody involved that parks is not that autonomous.”

His second motion, Mitchell said, was in response to Weaver asking the council to consider the process of dissolving the commission before voting to do so.

“I withdrew my motion to make another to say, ‘OK, attorney, you say we have to do all this stuff, so just prove it,’ ” Mitchell said. “That didn’t mean we were going to go in an attempt to dissolve them. It just meant, ‘Attorney, step up to the plate.’ ”

If you ask Berry, parks is autonomous. Berry said the commission is doing well, saying he’s not sure why Mitchell moved to dissolve it.

“I don’t know what point he was trying to make,” Berry said. “If he was trying to make that point, I don’t think he was going about it the right way.”

Schneider said she stands by her vote.

“Dissolving parks is the stupidest thing the city could do right now,” Schneider said. “In past history, every time a group of people has started an event and it has been really, really, really good … after four or five years, the city decides it needs to have more city control.”

She continued, “They take it over, and it dies every single time. It’s ridiculous. When something is functioning properly, why mess with it?”

McClung agreed.

“I think parks is just fine. For whatever reasons I don’t understand, they have bad feelings toward the community center,” McClung said. “Parks operates just fine. That’s why I support it.”

For Greene, it’s an especially sensitive issue. She’s served on commissions for 15 years and said she’s not comfortable dissolving someone’s commission.

“I know how hard those commissioners work, and I have the utmost faith in them,” Greene said. “I do not want to dissolve the parks commission. I respect them.”

Thomas said he’s leery of the commission’s relationship with the community center but believes the parks commission should remain in place.

“Dissolving parks is too drastic a step at this point in time,” Thomas said. “We could hold a hearing and remove one or two or three commissioners. I would see that as a step before dissolving the commission.”

Kendrick did not return a call to comment.

Collusion or partnership?

The reason he’s concerned about the parks commission, Mitchell said, is because chairman Bill Featherstone also serves on the community center foundation’s board of directors. Mitchell said Featherstone advised parks director Justin Huss to apply for a grant for the community center’s perimeter trail, which was denied. After that, Mitchell said, Featherstone asked Huss to redirect a grant for a trail on Dairy Hollow Road to the community center.

“It feels like there’s some inappropriate collusion going on between the parks commission and the community center, and it very clearly rests with Bill Featherstone,” Mitchell said.

Huss said that’s not true at all. He suggested that the commission send the grant for the Dairy Hollow trail back, Huss said, after realizing the guidelines didn’t fit with that particular trail. Then he ran into an official from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, Huss said, who suggested using the grant for another project in town. It seemed perfect, Huss said, to use the grant for sidewalks along Highway 62 and the walking trail at the community center.

“Turning this grant back was my decision,” Huss said.

Mitchell said he believes Featherstone is misleading the commission.

“They’re just being completely misled by their chairman. The chairperson has pushed them probably the last six months to a year into the things they’ve been doing,” Mitchell said.

Thomas agreed.

“This is totally inappropriate for one person to serve on two boards and use money from one to fund another,” Thomas said. “I’ve never seen this happen before where someone thought they could continue to represent two different entities.”

Huss said the commission isn’t being controlled by anybody.

“I believe we have a number of strong individuals involved in parks, and I think anyone who’s attended meetings with Bill and I both there can see pretty readily we don’t always agree,” Huss said.

Featherstone agreed, saying he has less power than anyone on the commission. As chairman, Featherstone said, he can’t vote unless there’s a tie or lack of quorum.

“They think I have some magic control over the commission, that the rest of the commissioners are just faces or just pawns,” Featherstone said. “It’s a slap in the face of my fellow commissioners to think I have some control over them and their vote doesn’t matter, because nothing can be further from the truth.”

Featherstone has a long history in Eureka Springs, serving on the city council for two years, the planning commission for six years and the parks commission for 20 years. Berry said he’s grateful to Featherstone for his years of service.

“There’s no collusion,” Berry said. “Everything they’ve been doing is open. Bill does not have a conflict of interest. He has no fiduciary interest in the community center or parks. He’s doing this out of what he thinks is best for the community.”

It’s no different from a planning commissioner being part of Rotary, Berry said.

“These are all volunteer organizations. Eureka Springs is a small community,” Berry said. “We wear a lot of hats. I think we get into personal rights … when we say you can’t be involved in one volunteer organization or another volunteer organization.”

McClung said he’s had his differences with Featherstone in the past but respects Featherstone’s dedication to parks.

“Bill volunteers a lot of time to parks and other things around town as well,” McClung said. “Any time you can get good, solid volunteers, appreciate them for what they are. Bill’s all right.”

Future of parks commission

If council ever decided to dissolve the commission, Berry said, it could be catastrophic for parks.

“There could be a lot of ramifications in effect,” Berry said. “[Huss] can be fired by the mayor, whoever it is, if the mayor is mad at him. The council could take away their entire budget, and they wouldn’t have any money available to do any work.”

That’s his biggest fear, Featherstone said.

“It would inevitably destroy parks and recreation as we know it now. The city’s broke. That’s not going to change any time soon,” Featherstone said. “Ultimately, since they don’t have the money to do what they need to do, guess where some of that parks money would go? I know in my heart that’s exactly where it would end up.”

The reason Mitchell wants to dissolve parks, Featherstone said, has everything to do with control.

“The council doesn’t have control of the parks commission. [Mitchell] can’t stand that,” Featherstone said. “They would have total control over a parks department. That’s what it’s about.”

Since the conflict began with the council, Featherstone said, he’s been thinking about how to respond to it. He’s had people call him offering to help pay legal fees, Featherstone said, to sue for defamation. He doesn’t plan to take any action on that, Featherstone said, unless the situation continues to get worse.

“On a personal level, a moral level and definitely a legal level, they’re doing something they shouldn’t be,” Featherstone said. “They’re using words like collusion. It’s bothering some people, because they know it’s wrong.”

Moving forward, Huss said, the commission hopes to focus on day-to-day operations. The commission decided to wait to sign the contract for the greenhouse project, Huss said, until the greenhouse is built. In the meantime, he said, he’s focused on opening the new downhill mountain bike trails at Lake Leatherwood and working on improvements to Basin Park.

“There’s a lot of things for us to do,” Huss said. “There’s a lot of opportunities for volunteers.”

Volunteering, Huss said, is one of the best ways to show support for the commission.

“I encourage people who have opinions and strong emotions to get involved,” Huss said. “Let’s work together on the projects we can work together on, all be respectful with each other and deal with the facts.”

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