Records show Wright’s efforts to control CAPC staff

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Editor’s Note: This is the third and final report in a series of reports about the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission. Quotations from emails and written documents have not been edited for spelling, grammar or punctuation.

“I am the chair. That is the chain of command. You cannot have seven bosses.”

If any single quotation summarizes Carol Wright’s interaction with the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission staff during her tenure as the commission’s chair, it’s that one, written by Wright in an email to CAPC interim director Gina Rambo in February 2020.

Wright served as chair of the CAPC from January 2019 to January 2021 and is currently the commission’s secretary/treasurer. Her term as chair was marred by controversy, with public records indicating much of it was tied to Wright’s efforts to control day-to-day operations of the CAPC.

Commissioners’ authority

CAPC commissioners’ duties and authority are defined in Chapter 2.56 of the Eureka Springs City Code and Title 26, Subtitle 6, Chapter 75, Subchapter 6 of the Annotated Code of Arkansas.

Neither the city nor state code bestow any authority on the commission chair beyond that held by other commissioners — except that the chair may call a special meeting of the commission.

That hasn’t prevented Wright from acting in a manner more consistent with a direct supervisor in her dealings with CAPC staff.

Performance appraisal

In January, CAPC finance director Rick Bright emailed all commission members, Mayor Butch Berry and former commissioners Susan Harman and Terry McClung about a “performance appraisal” completed by Wright.

In the appraisal, which Bright included with his email, Wright awarded Bright a total of 735 points in 11 categories — an overall rating of 66.8. Wright gave Bright 90 points for attendance but just 40 points apiece for creativity, adherence to policy, interpersonal relationships and judgment.

In a section designated for “supportive details or comments,” Wright wrote “insubordinate” or “insubordination” for six categories.

Wright awarded Bright 75 points for independence, writing in the comments section: “Good on CAPC work; however competing loyalties (press, family, political, collectors) are a constant problem. Several instances of insubordination.”

In his email about the appraisal, Bright writes: “As discussed by the commission last year at evaluation time, the director and executive director are commission employee’s to be evaluated by the commission, there was no vote to give the commission chair the authority to review for the commission, in fact it was determined that the chair could not.

“This review is just the latest example of the abuse all of the staff of the CAPC has endured over the past year and a half with the chairperson in place. We have been threatened, put on notice, had the police called to escort me from the building, had formal write up put in front of me to sign which I did not. Wright just asked last week if I would consider being the Interim Director again because ‘we are making a change’ The comments made on this completed form by Wright are slanderous/wrong and some just flat out lies.

“The election of the chair is mandated to take place the first meeting of each year which has not taken place at this time, so Wright is not the official chair for 2021 at this point.

“The city of Eureka Springs does not have a employee grievance policy, so at the advice of legal council I am forwarding this to all sitting commissioners, the mayors office as well as the two city council commissioners which just went off the commission 12/31/2020 as they were party to all the issues of the past year plus.

“I have attached a blank form for each commissioner to fill out if they wish too. In the end this is just a piece of paper in a file, Arkansas is a right to work state so any employee can be fired at will with no cause at anytime, there were no merit/cost of living raises submitted in the budget which are the purpose of this evaluation required by the city employee handbook.”

Warning to Bright

The January appraisal wasn’t the first time Wright complained about Bright’s job performance. On March 20, 2020, Wright issued a written “warning” to Bright about an email Bright sent to commissioners. In that email, Bright urged commissioners not to renew a contract with former CAPC director Lacey Ekberg.

“Lacey has not been joining in on our phone conversations or answering emails for days at a time, Paradise and our staff have this covered I strongly suggest not extending the contract beyond the 90 days if for nothing else but upcoming collection shortage,” Bright’s email says. “At this point Lacey is not working with us, but against us and it is really hard for Gina [Rambo, the CAPC’s interim director] and Paradise to move forward on a daily basis.”

Wright responded shortly to the email, ordering Bright to recall it. Her written warning to Bright, which is included in Bright’s personnel file at City Hall, is dated the same day.

“This warning is discussed with and given to Rick Bright on March 20, 2020, at approximately 4 pm at the CAPC Offices in Eureka Springs, AR,” Wright writes. “This warning addresses Mr. Bright’s e-mail of this morning to Commissioners which included statements about a contract employee and former employee, Lacey Ekberg, that are not his authority nor purview; and, especially, when he well knows putting this type of opinion/complaint in writing is subject to FOIA and other inquiries.

“The matters he opines about in this e-mail were/are being addressed by various Commissioners with whom he and other staff have communicated and were/are to be taken up at our March 25, 2020, regular meeting. There was no need for this behavior, when there are other avenues available to exchange this information.

“Mr. Bright is hereby on notice that he is to go thru his direct report for permission to opine on anything other than his direct job duties before subjecting the CAPC to possible ethical and legal redress, and he is well aware of both of these issues in this ‘sensitive’ 90-day contract period with Ms. Ekberg in which we’ve consulted with legal experts (referred by Mr. Bright) on our best way to act and progress with this particular contract.

“It should be clear that any further behavior/action of this manner may result in immediate dismissal.”

At the bottom of the document was a handwritten note, initialed by Wright, saying: “Mr. Bright refused to sign this, saying only the commission can warn & fire him.”

Ekberg was hired as the CAPC’s executive director in July 2019, although the commission never voted on the hiring in open session as required by state law. She began work the following month. In January 2020, the Lovely County Citizen reported that the resume Ekberg submitted to the CAPC listed several previous jobs as “short-term contracts” despite public records and published accounts indicating they were intended to be long-term positions. Ekberg’s resume also did not mention a position she held for a little more than two months in Alachua County, Fla. — while on partially part paid leave from a similar job in Switzerland County, Ind. — before being fired.

In February 2020, the commission voted to switch Ekberg from a full-time city employee to an off-site contractor, with a review after 90 days. Rambo was appointed interim director. Wright encouraged Bright to submit his resume for the interim position but he declined, emails show.

In April 2020, the CAPC voted not to renew Ekberg’s contract, which expired on May 14 — the same day the Citizen reported that the commission actually had three separate contracts with Ekberg. None of those agreements were ever discussed or voted on in open session as required by state law. Public records show Ekberg later drew unemployment benefits charged to the city.

Pryor’s statement

CAPC staff member Karen Pryor addressed the commission at its Jan. 27 meeting, reading a prewritten statement that said she was “deeply saddened, sometimes appalled” about the state of affairs at the CAPC.

“I always thought I had the best job in the world,” said Pryor, who started working for the CAPC in 2005. “I’ve seen great people come and go. I’ve seen people go who frankly should have gone. Unfortunately, I’ve seen some great people go in dramatic ways simply because they dared to try and make a difference.”

During the past 18 months, Pryor said, tensions arose between the commission and CAPC staff.

“We have been lied to,” she said. “We have been bullied. We have had our jobs threatened because of vicious gossip and innuendo. We have endured manipulation and false accusations. Some have even attempted to pit us against each other, and yet we still come to work every day and try to do the jobs that we have been hired to do.”

Personal information

In response to a Freedom of Information Act filed to help gather information for this report, Eureka Springs City Hall released personnel files for Bright, Pryor and Rambo. In addition to routine documents such as time-off requests and pay increase paperwork, the files released by the city included copies of direct deposit documents for all three employees, with both Bright’s and Rambo’s bank routing numbers and account numbers. Pryor’s routing number was also visible although the section designated for her account number was blank. It was not clear whether the section was blank on the original document, or if the information had been redacted. Also included in the information provided by the city were copies of IRS form W4 for all three employees that indicated their marital status as well as copies of all three employees’ driver’s licenses with their home addresses visible.

The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act includes specific exemptions for personal financial records and marital status and for home addresses of nonelected municipal employees.

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