From the editor: Questions for commissioner

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A story published in last week’s issue of The Citizen has been the topic of much discussion in Eureka Springs, and I’d like to address some of that.

The story revealed some apparent discrepancies between the resume submitted by Lacey Ekberg, now the executive director of the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission, and her actual work history.

Ms. Ekberg’s resume describes several positions as “short-term contracts” despite evidence that those positions were actually intended to be long-term jobs. It also fails to mention a position she held for two months — while on a leave of absence from another job — before being terminated.

Before I go further, I want to make it very clear that this is a column, not a news story. News stories must be fact-based and objective. I assure you, last week’s story was exactly that. However, that story prompted some criticism from Ms. Ekberg and others that focused not on the facts outlined in the story, but the motivation behind its publication.

It’s difficult to explain, in a news story, why that story is newsworthy without risking a bit of objectivity. An objective news story seeks to lay out facts and let readers draw their own conclusions.

In this column format, there’s more freedom for me to address the motivation behind last week’s story, and a previous story about Ms. Ekberg’s two personal bankruptcy filings.

As an apparently devoted reader noted on Facebook over the weekend, I tend to write columns explaining our newspapers’ reasoning after folks start criticizing legitimate news stories. So, here we go.

I’ll address the bankruptcy story first. That story, which was based on public documents, was newsworthy in my opinion because Ms. Ekberg was about to be handed the keys to a $1.5 million budget funded almost entirely by tax funds.

I should acknowledge that there is some oversight involved. The CAPC has a finance director and Ms. Ekberg reports to a six-member commission. But Ms. Ekberg directs the day-to-day operations of the department and she does have a prominent voice in financial decisions.

It’s reasonable, in my opinion, to think that Ms. Ekberg’s personal financial history might reflect, to some degree, on her ability to manage a large public budget.

Some readers certainly disagree with me, but my job isn’t to agree or disagree with readers. It’s to inform the citizens of our community about what is happening within their government.

Now, on to the more recent story on Ms. Ekberg’s professional background. It’s reasonable, in my opinion, to compare Ms. Ekberg’s resume to her actual work history and surmise that the resume includes some misrepresentations. Certainly, it includes at least one omission.

It’s probably easier to explain seven jobs in as many years by declaring that they were “short term contracts” than to provide details about the actual circumstances. It’s probably easier not to mention a job that ended in termination than to include it on a resume and attempt to explain it.

How important that is, again, is up to each reader to decide for themselves.

For the record, Ms. Ekberg was provided with copies of the documentation for that story and given an opportunity to respond during an in-person meeting.

She chose to spend most of that meeting in a profane tirade during which she ridiculed my job and my salary, accused me of stalking her and used a crude sexual metaphor in reference to our reporting on her personal bankruptcies.

Ms. Ekberg, for the record, has not been harassed, trolled, stalked or persecuted in any form by this news organization. She is a public official, and that comes with a level of accountability and scrutiny. She has been asked legitimate questions about conflicting information regarding her professional background.

One thing Ms. Ekberg didn’t do during our meeting was dispute any of the facts presented to her. She did, however, say that the CAPC conducted a full background check, just as she said in August that all six CAPC commissioners were aware of her personal financial background.

Only two of the six commissioners have been willing to speak on the record about Ms. Ekberg. Both said in August they were not aware of her bankruptcy filings and both said last week they were unaware of a “full background check” on Ms. Ekberg.

For her part, Ms. Ekberg connected last week’s story to her decision to cancel all CAPC advertising with publications produced by Carroll County Newspapers. That decision was communicated on Aug. 19, four days after Ms. Ekberg began work in Eureka Springs and 10 days after the story regarding her bankruptcies was initially published in the Carroll County News.

Later, it was announced that the CAPC would be sponsoring the Eureka Springs Fun Guide, produced by the ES Independent. The Independent is a direct competitor to this newspaper, and the Fun Guide competes for advertising dollars with the Eureka Springs Visitor, also produced by Carroll County Newspapers.

Financial details of that sponsorship agreement have not been revealed. Yet.

In a Dec. 4 story announcing the sponsorship, the Independent was highly complimentary of Ms. Ekberg’s efforts during her first 100 days in office. Headlined “Meet Lacey, you’ll be energized,” the story included direct quotes only from Ms. Ekberg. It also referred to her “quiet voice and earnest devotion.” Apparently, whatever interview was conducted for that story had an entirely different tone than my one and only face-to-face conversation with Ms. Ekberg.

As mentioned earlier, Ms. Ekberg didn’t offer a great deal of explanation during that conversation on Tuesday, Jan. 14. She had quite a bit more to say in a Facebook comment three days later, on Friday, Jan. 17.

That comment, which was posted multiple times on Facebook pages for the Carroll County News and the Citizen, ran for more than 1,300 words. Ms. Ekberg told us about her shoe size, her credit score, her car payment and her dietary choices, among other topics. She also outlined a litany of personal challenges in accounting for her bankruptcies and her frequent job changes. She did not, however, address the question of why her resume lists several positions as short-term contracts when there is strong evidence that they were not. She did confirm that she worked for roughly two months in Alachua County, Fla., before being terminated. She wrote that officials in Alachua County were aware of the reason she had returned to Florida. As reported in this edition, however, her application there indicated that her contract in Indiana was ending soon and made no mention of a leave of absence. Notes from a group interview also make no mention of a leave of absence, but they do repeatedly describe Ms. Ekberg’s desire to live in Florida.

As mentioned before, only two of the six CAPC commissioners have chosen to comment on the record in regard to Ms. Ekberg. The other four have either not returned calls seeking comment, or declined to comment.

One commissioner in particular, however, has been quite vocal about the topic on social media. James DeVito, a former city council member, has criticized the coverage of Ms. Ekberg and questioned the motivation behind it in multiple Facebook comments. Like Ms. Ekberg, Mr. DeVito hasn’t really challenged the facts as reported. He has insisted that Ms. Ekberg’s decision not to reveal the Alachua County job is not significant, and said in so many words that the story was motivated by Ms. Ekberg’s decision to cancel advertising in our publications.

In other words, Mr. DeVito’s strategy has been to minimize, deflect and discredit the messenger rather than respond to the facts of the message.

Mr. DeVito is a longtime, outspoken critic of the Citizen. That’s his prerogative. For my part, I’m not exactly brimming with admiration for a public official — and Mr. DeVito is very much a public official — who ducks difficult questions when asked to comment for the record and then engages in gossip and rumor-mongering on the internet. If I’m being restrained, that strikes me as a complete lack of accountability and a disregard for the people he serves. If I’m being completely frank, it strikes me as cowardice.

Given Mr. DeVito’s outspoken nature (when he thinks he’s not speaking in a public forum, that is) I would like to pose some questions for him here. Mr. DeVito, I respectfully ask for you, as a public official, to answer these questions — in writing. I will guarantee up to a full page of space in next week’s edition to print your answers verbatim so that our readers can consider them and form their own opinions.

Mr. DeVito, was a full background check conducted on Ms. Ekberg? Were you aware of Ms. Ekberg’s work in Alachua County? If you were aware of it, was it your belief that Ms. Ekberg’s decision not to mention that position on her resume was not a cause for concern?

If you weren’t aware of Ms. Ekberg’s work in Alachua County, should the public be concerned that you and the other commissioners apparently did less research into Ms. Ekberg’s background than I did?

Is it more reasonable to postulate that our decision to report on Ms. Ekberg’s background in January 2020 is connected to her decision to pull advertising five months before, or to suggest that the decision to pull the advertising was connected to our reporting on her personal bankruptcies 10 days before that?

Is it more reasonable to insist that we’re hellbent on persecuting Ms. Ekberg in a dispute over advertising, or to wonder if it’s merely coincidence that the aforementioned Independent story spoke so glowingly of Ms. Ekberg so soon after her decision to direct public money to a publication produced by that newspaper?

And finally, Mr. DeVito, I’m frankly on pins and needles waiting to see how you spin an answer to this question: If advertising considerations played any role in our news coverage, whatsoever, why in the world would we ever have reported on Ms. Ekberg’s bankruptcies to begin with, knowing full well that she would soon be in a position to withdraw advertising?

We’ll be eagerly awaiting your written responses, Mr. DeVito.

In the meantime, our reporting will continue.

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Scott Loftis is managing editor for Carroll County Newspapers. His email address is CarrollCountyNews@cox-internet.com