Emails reveal more on CAPC controversy

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of reports about the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission. Emails quoted in this report have not been edited for punctuation or spelling.

Emails and other records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request shed some light on the controversy surrounding the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission’s decision not to hire a full-time special events coordinator.

The CAPC voted Jan. 27 not to hire an events coordinator, even though the commission had previously approved a 2021 budget that included funding for the position and the commission’s interim director, Gina Rambo, said she believed the job had essentially been offered to Tracy Johnson — who had served as the events coordinator on a contract basis in 2019 and 2020.

On Nov. 18, 2020, the commission voted 4-2 to approve a 2021 budget that included funding for an events coordinator as a full-time city employee.

At a Jan. 13 commission workshop, it was revealed that while Johnson was still serving as the special events coordinator, she had not been paid in weeks. Instead, the position had been posted online, although there had been no vote by the commission to do so. Commissioner Bobbie Foster, who initially raised the issue of Johnson not being paid, said she had spoken with Mayor Butch Berry and he advised her that the job posting would remain on the city website through Jan. 31.

Rambo said she believed after the budget was approved in November that Johnson was “just switching from a contract employee to a salaried employee.”

Then-CAPC chair Carol Wright argued that the commission was required by city policy to post the job for 30 days.

In a Nov. 17 email to CAPC finance director Rick Bright, however, Wright indicated it was Johnson’s choice whether to remain on contract or become a city employee.

In the email with the subject line “Re: Tracey,” Wright asks Bright: “What did she decide - employee/contractor?”

Bright responds that Johnson hadn’t committed either way yet.

In an Oct. 26 email to Bill Fitzgerald, Wright writes: “I’ll be suggesting we look at hiring the Administrator at the beginning of the year (possibly sooner) PROBABLY RATHER THAN TRACEY’S POSITION as I’m sure we are not doing events at least 1st quarter (probably 2nd quarter, too. This will be a bit of a battle. … and the election will tell me how fair a Commission we will have going into next year.”

Sources have said Wright was courting Fitzgerald, former vice president of marketing and communications for the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, as a candidate to become CAPC director. Fitzgerald is now the marketing director for Little Rock-based Lexicon Inc.

In the Oct. 26 email exchange with Wright, Fitzgerald writes: “I know you said you wanted to wait until after the election to do anything, but if there’s anything I need to do — or you and I — in the meantime regarding the CAPC, just let me know.”

At the Jan. 13 workshop, commissioner Greg Moon asked who posted the special events coordinator job online and Foster said she believed it was Wright. Wright said Rambo posted the job. Rambo said she hadn’t planned to post the job online but that she had received “a couple phone calls saying that [Wright] and [mayoral assistant Kim Stryker] were implying that it was illegal for the job not to be posted.”

“So [Bright] and I decided we would just post it on CAPC.biz until Dec. 31, because [Johnson] was going to be a full-time employee on Jan. 4,” Rambo said. “And then there was a conversation I was locked out of between [Stryker] and [Wright.]”

On Dec. 17, Stryker emailed Wright about the job posting:

“Carol,

“I am sending this to let you know about the job posting for the Events Coordinator position that I received from Gina Rambo at 2:39pm yesterday. Here is the chronology:

“• Gina sent an email to me at 2:39 yesterday 12/16/20 asking me to post the attached job opening on the city website.

“• I replied back immediately with 2 questions: where are applicants to direct their submissions to this posting and what is the deadline.

“• Gina replied back at 2:59 ‘They can e-mail their resume to me grambo@eurekasprings.org Or mail to: Gina Rambo Eureka Springs CAPC P.O. Box 522 Eureka Springs, AR. 72632 Deadline January 31st.’

“• I replied back at 3:03 ‘Thank you. This is posted.’

“• At 4:14 Gina sent an email saying ‘I’m SO sorry, I meant December 31st on the deadline!!’

“• At 4:15 I replied ‘Where are you print running this posting?’

“• I have not received a response to my question about where the print is running for this position.

The reason I am sending this to you is to let you know that I have removed the city website posting at the Mayor’s suggestion until you can confirm the actual deadline for applicant submissions. An attempt to post this position opening only on the city website and with only a 2 week application window with a major holiday in the middle of that window is not an honest attempt to make this job posting open to the public. This is a newly created full time position at the CAPC and pays very well, there will be individuals who wish to submit their qualifications against this posting if they know about it.”

Wright replied: “Leave it on City website as 1/31 please.”

Later that day, Stryker emailed a copy of the job posting from the city website. The posting instructed interested parties to submit their information to Bright — a change from Rambo’s direction that resumes should be sent to her.

On Jan. 6, Mayor Butch Berry emailed Wright with the subject line: “Tracy Johnson Personnel Action Form 1/6/21.”

Berry’s email to Wright says: “Carol,

“This was just put on my desk asking me to approve this ASAP by Rick.

“My understanding is that this position is still open and being advertised until Jan 31, 2021. I also understand that the staff is not to enter into any contract without prior approval from the CAPC Commission. This appears to be in conflict with what the Commission has stated.

“Please let me know what your thoughts are.”

Wright responded nearly 12 hours later, according to timestamps on the email correspondence, at 11:12 p.m.

“We won't be hiring the position until resumes are received through 1/31/2021,” Wright writes. “With our NEW Commissioners I anticipate not hiring first quarter, possibly 2and quarter, maybe 3rd and/or 4th. We might hire only part-time, or contract out.”

At the time of the email exchange between Berry and Wright, the Eureka Springs City Council had not yet voted to appoint its two representatives to the CAPC for 2021. Those appointments were made the following week, when Berry cast the deciding votes to appoint council members Melissa Greene and Harry Meyer to the CAPC.

The email exchange between Berry and Wright continued on Jan. 7, when Berry writes: “Who had kim post this on the city web site?  Nothing wrong just checking. Gina called me today and wanted me to call her. But i have not returned her call yet. Im sure it's about why i haven't signed off on Tracys personel form for hiring. If you can let me know i appreciate it.”

The personnel action form that Berry referred to was a request to hire Johnson at a starting wage of $37,000 annually. It was dated Jan. 1 and signed by Rambo.

Rambo emailed Berry on Jan. 12, the day before the CAPC workshop where Foster revealed that Johnson wasn’t being paid. In her email, Rambo refers to the November meeting when the commission approved a 2021 budget with funding for a full-time events coordinator.

“There is nothing in the minutes regarding a vote on Tracy, as the commission doesn’t hire the staff and did not vote,” Rambo writes. “… The commission did ask Tracy if she wanted to switch from a contract employee to salaried employee. When she agreed, her 2021 salary was discussed and is part of the commission approved 2021 budget.

“It has always been my understanding—and Karen and Rick’s—that the director hires the staff. As we watched both Mike and Lacey hire staff with no discussion or approval from the commission. In fact, Rick even hired staff as interim director his first time (prior to Mike’s hiring). There was also never any involvement from the mayor’s office other than the signature.

“I’m not trying to do anything sneaky or shady. I have no desire to put my job on the line for Tracy or anyone else. So all these crazy accusations of ‘illegal’—both in this situation and many of the others--couldn’t be further from the truth.

“The reason I went ahead and posted the job was because I received a phone call warning me that Carol and Kim were ‘scheming’ (their words) to get me in trouble for hiring Tracy without posting the job. Carol actually confirmed this with Rick telling him “don’t tell Gina”. So Rick’s advice was to go ahead and send Kim the posting and to post it on CAPC.biz to nip this in the bud. … I just wanted any nonsense to be stopped so I can do my job.”

In her email to Berry, Rambo acknowledges mistakenly telling Stryker to post the events coordinator job until Jan. 31.

“When I caught my mistake, I immediately emailed her again and corrected the deadline to December 31st—those emails are attached.

“Rather than Kim just correcting it, there was more communication with just Carol (not the entire commission) and they kept the deadline of January 31st and changed it to Rick receiving all applications. The finance director does not/never has had anything to do with staff.

“I support Tracy because we have had a revolving door of events people here in this office and a couple of really awful experiences that made this office a toxic place to be. She also loves this town and wants what’s best, she would do this job for free if she could. And she brings a positive attitude in here that we all need. It’s as plain as that—she’s the best, why lose her?”

Berry responded to Rambo’s email the following morning, just hours before the CAPC workshop that afternoon.

“My understanding is that you are the interim director, not the formal Director, as Mike and Lacy were,” Berry writes. “There is a difference in what the commission will allow Interim Director do and not do.”

After Rambo replies to ask for documentation of that and pointed out that Bright had hired a finance director while serving as interim director, Berry responds: “It's up to the commission. Ask them”

At a special meeting on Jan. 20, the CAPC voted 4-3 to pay Johnson a contract rate through Jan. 31. Wright cast the tie-breaking vote.

On Jan. 27, the CAPC elected Jeff Carter as chairman, with Wright being elected secretary/treasurer.

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