Council criticizes parks-community center partnership
The city of Eureka Springs won’t be doing business with the Eureka Springs Community Center Foundation any time soon, and that includes the parks commission.
At Monday night’s city council meeting, alderman Bob Thomas asked parks director Justin Huss about the parks commission’s involvement with the community center’s new greenhouse program. Thomas said he recently spoke with Jason McAfee, the teacher in charge of Eureka Springs High School’s greenhouse program.
“I don’t understand why, when the citizens here have been crying for years for the parks to do more for the youth, why are you not working with the school greenhouse?” Thomas said. “It looks to me like you guys wanted a greenhouse and you only went one place to get it.”
Huss said that’s not how the parks commission got involved with the community center’s program. The community center foundation received a grant from AT&T, Huss said, to build the greenhouse and offer educational programming. That was when the foundation asked the commission to be involved, Huss said.
“This made a lot of sense … not only to help us financially with plant starts but also to provide an opportunity for programming,” Huss said. “It wasn’t really, ‘Hey, we want a greenhouse. Build us a greenhouse.’ It was, ‘We have a greenhouse. Do you want to be part of this?’ ”
Huss said he’s on the foundation’s greenhouse committee and has been figuring out how the partnership will work. After a few meetings, Huss said, the committee has decided to move the site of the greenhouse. Parks employees will visit the greenhouse throughout the day, Huss said, to check on the plants.
“This is not a staff member at the greenhouse. This is multiple staff members coming in for plant management,” Huss said, saying parks would save money on plant starts and could even earn revenue by selling some of the grown plants.
Thomas said all of that would be possible through the school’s greenhouse program. He remembered the council’s vote Jan. 8 to suspend all engagement with the community center until the foundation can provide the city with its articles of incorporation, lease with the school district and financial information. That applies to the greenhouse project, Thomas said.
“At what point do you say, ‘It’s not appropriate for me to be on the foundation greenhouse board?’” Thomas said.
“Bob, there’s opinion involved in every issue you just raised,” Huss said. “If you take away whatever all this is, this project is solid and right within our wheelhouse and our mission, and I feel strongly about that. That’s why I’ve continued despite these concerns.”
Alderman David Mitchell said he understood where Thomas was coming from. The council isn’t against the community center, Mitchell said.
“The issues is the relationship between a department of the city and a freestanding community center. This has nothing to do with the concept of a community center, has nothing to do with the people on that board,” Mitchell said. “It has to do with the relationship between a city department and a 501(c)3 and business practices.”
It started with the parks commission rerouting a grant for the community center’s exercise trail, Mitchell said.
“Then the next thing you know we have a greenhouse popping up and the trails come in, so all of it now is blended into one big hell of a mess,” Mitchell said. “I’m not anti-community center at all, but if you want to have a community center and a 501(c)3, do it the right way. Earn the money, take care of it and do it yourself.”
He continued, “Don’t all of a sudden start blending over and start looking at city resources … to just start funneling and supporting projects you’ve got going on for a privately funded and ran community center. It would be like taking parks and sending them to the mayor’s house to paint it.”
“That’s a big jump, David,” Huss said.
Mitchell disagreed but said he doesn’t believe parks tried to undermine the city by getting involved with the community center. Huss said public-private partnerships like this one are great for the city, and Mitchell said that would be true if parks chairman Bill Featherstone didn’t serve on the community center’s board.
“I support you and I support everything you’ve done to this point,” Mitchell said. “The leadership provided by the chairman is questionable.”
“Public-private partnership most often refers to a business over here and a public entity over here, not when the business owner is the chairman of the entity,” Thomas said.
“If that chairman owned the company, I’d take that comment more, but you have further opinions on that,” Huss said. “I think public-private is pretty commonplace and encouraged.”
“I do too, but not when the boards are mixed,” Thomas said. “That’s not public-private.”
Alderwoman Mickey Schneider said she supports the partnership.
“All of this is benefiting the city. It is saving money or making money,” Schneider said. “What is the problem?”
Alderman Terry McClung concurred, saying he’s grateful for Featherstone’s continued service to the city.
“I don’t think it’s a conflict of interests for him, because he’s not making any money out of this,” McClung said. “It’s nothing.”
To avoid a conflict of interests, Huss said, he speaks with foundation chairwoman Diane Murphy or greenhouse committee chairman Jack Moyer, not Featherstone. Thomas said Featherstone is on that committee, too.
“So Mr. Featherstone is on the greenhouse committee representing the foundation,” alderwoman Kristi Kendrick said. “I find that a horrible conflict.”
It’s up to the community center, Mitchell said, to provide the documents the council requested Jan. 8. Mayor Butch Berry said he mentioned it to the foundation but hasn’t received the documents yet.
“The ball is in their court to give it to us,” Mitchell said. “As far as the greenhouse, if we get this contract … I would have no problem doing a clear exception for it.”