CAPC votes to pay Johnson through end of January

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission has agreed to pay special events coordinator Tracy Johnson through Jan. 31, but Johnson’s employment status is still unclear.

Tracy Johnson

The commission addressed Johnson’s pay at its Jan. 13 workshop, where commissioner Bobbie Foster said she was concerned that Johnson wasn’t getting paid for her work in January. Chairwoman Carol Wright said the commission never voted to hire Johnson for the full-time special events coordinator position. According to Wright, the commission voted to create the full-time position but did not vote to hire anyone.

Interim director Gina Rambo said she believed Johnson was transitioning from contract to full-time work, something the commission continues to debate. The commission agreed to hold a special meeting on Jan. 20 to discuss the events coordinator and Auditorium manager position, where Johnson’s pay was a hot topic.

Jan. 20 meeting

The commission’s Jan. 20 special meeting kicked off with commissioner Harry Meyer asking for someone to fill him in on what was happening. Along with commissioner Melissa Greene, Meyer was recently appointed to the commission by the Eureka Springs City Council for a one-year term. Commissioner James DeVito described how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the city, saying everything shut down in March 2020.

DeVito said people will be still be getting vaccinations in April and May, so he doesn’t expect to “see anything on the immediate horizon” when it comes to events. DeVito said Mayor Butch Berry has canceled all events for the next three months, and Wright said she recently spoke with Berry about that.

“He feels that he will be canceling through the end of June,” Wright said.

“So basically, we’re looking until June before we can finalize the events and use the Auditorium, and that’s just not fiscally sound business,” DeVito said.

DeVito said the city has many struggling merchants and said the special events coordinator job is among the “best paying jobs in the city.” DeVito suggested that the commission wait to hire for both the special events coordinator and Auditorium manager positions.

“So you’re saying don’t hire for at least six months?” Wright asked.

“I actually was in favor last year of eliminating the positions, but we didn’t bring it up to the board to vote on,” DeVito said. “This is the first chance we have to vote on it. I would have terminated those positions six months ago, because nothing occurred in the last eight months regarding special events except the balcony series.”

DeVito was referring to the Overhead Music Series, which featured musicians playing on local balconies every weekend from September to November. The last performance in the series took place during the 73rd annual Ozark Folk Festival. The festival featured a modified schedule because of COVID-19.

“We’re looking at around $50,000 spent for putting some musicians on the balconies,” DeVito said. “I don’t feel that we got much return on an investment of $50,000. We’re looking at that scenario again going forward for the rest or for the first half of this year.”

DeVito said the commission needs to be “prudent with the resources,” saying the commission’s revenue was down by 23 percent at the end of 2020.

“I feel that it’s better to spend those resources in an advertising campaign than to have events, which right now are questionable when people attend them,” DeVito said.

Foster reminded the commission of its Nov. 18 meeting. After listening to a recording of that meeting, Foster said, “we were all on the same page feeling like [Johnson] was going to move forward.”

“It was included in the budget. The budget was approved,” Foster said. “Now that we’re looking back on it … maybe there should have been a vote, but there wasn’t.”

Foster said she’s concerned that the commission hasn’t correctly handled the situation with Johnson’s employment. She said she didn’t realize the job would be posted on the city website or that Johnson would have to re-apply for the position.

“I feel like this was done in a manner that was not correct and I’d like to correct that and move forward,” Foster said.

Commissioner Greg Moon agreed, and Wright asked how Foster would propose to move forward. Foster moved to put Johnson back on contract labor and pay her the contract rate for Jan. 1 through Jan. 31. Foster said the commission can’t make a decision about the full-time position until the online posting expires on Jan. 31.

“From what I’m understanding, [Johnson] has had a very good meeting with the Passion Play people that I feel like … is something I’ve been talking about for years,” Foster said. “I feel like [Johnson] is on the verge of doing something that could really benefit this town.”

Foster reiterated that she disagrees with how Johnson’s employment has been handled.

“I feel like no matter who it was or regardless of what you feel about anybody personally, you don’t just stop paying a person that’s working for you,” Foster said. “I think it took us all by surprise that this happened.”

Greene said the meeting would end if the commission voted on Foster’s motion, saying the commission can only take one action at special called meetings.

“Well, we already have a motion and a second for discussion that’s still open,” Wright said. “So we will continue to discuss and then we’ll make the decision.”

Greene said she supports the moratorium on events.

“All our private event promoters canceled their events in unity to keep us safe,” Greene said. “Unfortunately … we’re still experiencing this pandemic. I’ve had two private promoters in this town tell me they’ve canceled their events, at least until the fall.”

Greene said Johnson should be a contract employee instead of a full-time employee. Greene also said the commission’s Nov. 18 vote to approve the 2021 budget “was probably not legal” because the budget “must be presented to the commission the first of the year.”

“I don’t want to say it’s null and void and the budget isn’t any good,” Greene said. “I think there’s a lot of confusion. I don’t think anybody meant for it to be confusing.”

Commissioner Jeff Carter then said he had “a motion … maybe we could agree upon.” Carter moved to pay Johnson based on what she was making in 2020.

“If she’s worked, then she deserves to get paid,” Carter said. “But then as part of this motion, I’d like to not hire anyone at this time and put together a committee. That committee would also then make a recommendation back to this commission on how to move forward with events and with a coordinator for events.”

Greene said she would second that motion.

“And this means we’re going to discuss,” Greene said.

Foster said the commission couldn’t discuss a motion when another motion was on the table, and Wright said the commission was “still at the point where we had a motion and a second for discussion only.”

“At some point, we will go back and get [Foster’s] motion, vote on that and we will do the same with [Carter’s] and I’ll have them restate it,” Wright said.

“Let me say something if I may,” interjected former commissioner Terry McClung.

DeVito said the commission wasn’t taking public comments.

“We have a meeting going on right now,” DeVito said.

“Terry, have a seat,” Wright said. “Thank you.”

Meyer said he wants the commission’s decision to coordinate with Berry’s restriction on events, and Carter said he would like a representative from the mayor’s office to be on the proposed committee for special events.

DeVito said representatives from Paradise Marketing expressed “shock” that the commission puts on events. DeVito said he has been involved a number of events in Eureka Springs over the years, saying events “just aren’t the way they were 20 years ago.”

“We don’t have a volunteer staff,” DeVito said. “We have too small staff to properly run the event like we used to.”

After that statement, several people laughed audibly in the audience.

“Can we keep some order, please? Thank you,” DeVito said. “We’re talking events and that is part of the history of events in this city. I wish it was different. I wish the events were like they were 15 or 20 years ago.”

DeVito said the commission should consider which events “we want to keep under the CAPC’s purview.”

“Things have changed in the last 10 or 15 years. People just aren’t stepping up to volunteer for the festivals like they used to,” DeVito said. “Blues Festival’s gone, Jazz Festival’s gone, Classical Music Festival’s gone, A Taste of Eureka’s gone … I can name half a dozen more festivals that are gone and the few we are doing right now, I’m sorry to say, aren’t up to … the level people expect.”

Carter said the committee could address that issue, saying the commission would meet as much as necessary or as little as necessary to answer questions about special events.

“Well, I would hope in the future we’re not at this place, because truthfully, I feel like this should have been a vote of the commission to start with,” Foster said. “It should have never been posted on the website without a vote of the whole commission. We don’t act individually. I don’t act individually.”

Foster added, “This is a commission of seven people. In the future, I think and I hope that this should be voted on regardless of what the committee comes up with.”

Carter said committees can’t vote and Foster said she understood that. Foster said she wants to ensure that the commission takes all necessary votes in the future and Carter and Moon agreed.

Wright announced that the commission was at the end of discussion and asked the commission to recognize Foster’s motion. Foster restated her motion, saying she moved to pay Johnson the contract rate for Jan. 1 through 31. Carter then made a motion to pay Johnson Jan. 1 through 31 and “then we not hire at this time, that we put together a committee.”

Wright told the commission to vote on Foster’s motion first. The commission voted 4-3 to approve the motion, with Meyer, Foster and Moon voting yes and Greene, DeVito and Carter voting no. Wright voted yes to break the tie.

Wright said it was time to take up Carter’s motion and Carter began to restate his motion. Greene interrupted him, saying the commission can only take one action at a special meeting.

“So that’s done,” Greene said. “That’s how we ended it.”

Wright’s leadership

In a phone interview on Friday, McClung explained what he would have said if he wasn’t told to sit down at the Jan. 20 meeting. McClung said he wanted to point out that Wright’s procedure for the meeting was incorrect.

“[Foster] made a motion that was seconded and [Wright] cut her off and said [Foster] couldn’t make the motion because there was already a motion on the floor to discuss,” McClung said. “[Foster] was correct in doing what she did. You have the motion to discuss the topic, and during that discussion a motion comes up for action and that’s what [Foster] did.”

McClung continued, saying, “[Wright] was not running the meeting correctly. That’s all I was trying to say, but they pushed me aside.”

Moon agreed.

“[Wright] does not know how to run a meeting, period,” Moon said. “I wish somebody would sit down and tell her what her job is and how to run a meeting, and I wish she was focused on how to run a meeting correctly.”

Former commissioner Susan Harman responded to Wright’s comment at the Jan. 13 workshop that Harman “insisted … that we do our policies and procedures the way the city does it.” Harman said she was referring to the commission’s failure to follow city guidelines, especially regarding the hiring of former executive director Lacey Ekberg.

“There were things that were done that were not in line with city guidelines, namely how she was hired, how she was vetted and when she had to turn the paperwork in,” Harman said. “I absolutely believe you should follow all guidelines, but I don’t believe you should bend those guidelines to fit your narrative.”

That’s what Wright is doing, Harman said.

“I am very, very offended that [Wright] would mention my name for her own personal reasons,” Harman said. “What she’s doing right now doesn’t benefit our town. What she’s doing right now goes absolutely against what the guidelines for the commission are, what the moral compass of a commissioner is.”

The only responsibility commissioners have, Harman said, is to support the tax collectors.

“They’re not there to create their own island they live on where they’re the most important person,” Harman said. “For [Wright] to be leading that charge the way she’s leading it is so wrong on so many levels.”

Harman said Wright has tried to fire “every single person” in the CAPC office.

“And it has nothing to do with their job performance,” Harman said. “It has everything to do with her own personal vendetta. If she doesn’t like you … she’s going to get rid of you, and there’s a pattern of that abuse with every one of those staff members there.”

McClung said he is keeping an eye on the commission.

“I am concerned with the action that the commissioners are trying to take with the staff,” McClung said.

Future of special events

While the special events coordinator position is up in the air, it’s not the only issue facing the commission. DeVito said in a phone interview Friday that the commission needs to reassess events in general. DeVito said there will be no special events for the next six months, so there’s no need for a special events coordinator.

“[Johnson] should have been laid off seven months ago, without a doubt,” DeVito said. “For eight months, the only thing she’s produced is the balcony series. When you can’t have special events, you don’t need a special events director. This has nothing to do with [Johnson].”

DeVito said the commission will be forming a committee to address special events, even though the commission hasn’t voted to do so in a public meeting. DeVito said he’s seen people talking about the commission on social media — some people are saying the commission is going to cancel all its events, DeVito said.

“There’s a lot of misinformation and I know where it’s coming from,” DeVito said. “That’s nowhere close to the truth of what’s actually going on in this community. It’s lies. It’s innuendo. It’s deliberate misinformation.”

DeVito said city events aren’t like they used to be.

“Until people start stepping up and volunteering their time and effort, we’re never going to get back to the days where these festivals were wildly successful,” DeVito said. “The question is do these events really bring people to town?”

Harman said she believed Johnson would be working as the full-time special events coordinator after the commission’s Nov. 18 meeting, saying Johnson has done a good job running events in Eureka Springs.

“She has put on events and activities that were asked of her, and she’s come up with new ideas,” Harman said. “[Johnson] accepted the job when she was asked if she’d go from contractor to employee and she said yes. That was a verbal offer from the commission which she accepted.”

Carter said the commission still needs to “meet and clarify” that.

“I don’t really have any comment on what happened last year,” Carter said. “Last year is last year. We’re moving forward.”

Moon said he supports keeping Johnson as the special events coordinator in a full-time position.

“She’s doing an excellent job. She just recently got the Passion Play to start doing concerts out there,” Moon said. “All these years, people have been trying to get them to do this and they said no, but they said yes to [Johnson].”

Moon added, “[Johnson] has done a lot, even with COVID. She has done a lot to help the town. Most people come to town for events, and we need someone to control the events and make things happen.”

Greene said she’s waiting to comment until the commission has further discussion. Foster, Wright and Meyer did not return calls for comment.

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