Parks commission debates allowing director to sign checks
By Samantha Jones
In the last 45 minutes of a nearly five-hour meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 21, the Eureka Springs Parks and Recreation Commission exploded in debate over director Justin Huss' authority to sign checks.
The commission heard more than 15 items on the agenda, including a proposal for new soccer fields, approval of the 2020 budget, an amendment to fiscal matters to avoid commingling funds and and a citizen's report on her findings from a request for information. The commission then moved on to discuss approving the minutes from its last meeting.
That's when Huss and commissioner Scott Bardin expressed opposing views on the new check signature card. Bardin said Huss should not have the authority to sign checks for the commission, saying he is concerned about an $18,000 purchase he found in the bank statements. Bardin said Huss’ was the only signature on that check.
"He does not need to be a check signer on parks checks –– trust me," Bardin said.
"We've talked about this," Huss said. "That was a transfer."
"That was not a transfer," Bardin said.
Bardin made a motion that the executive director of parks should not be listed on the authorized signature card of any of the bank account funds for the commission, and the commissioners realized they hadn't even voted on the motion to approve the minutes yet. They voted to approve the minutes and Bardin made his motion again.
Commissioner Dave Hartmann asked for clarification on the $18,000 check, and Bardin said there were two "unlegible scribbles" on it.
"When I first brought it to the attention of Justin," Bardin said, "he said he didn't sign it. Then I heard he did sign it. There's a lot of suspicious activity with that one transaction."
Bardin said Huss should come to the commission to get approval for a purchase of that magnitude and asked how many people at the table knew about it.
"Everybody knew it, Scott," Huss said. "Everybody approved it. That countercheck is a countercheck to make a money order that we went and bought that equipment."
"As I and the state auditors discussed, it leaves us open, the way you handled it,” Bardin said. “What purpose is there for you to have check signing authorities?"
Huss said he's not worried about losing the authority to sign checks.
"I'm concerned about an accusation about a $18,000 check," Huss said.
"I was concerned about it too," Bardin said.
Huss suggested that Bardin look at previous meeting minutes to catch up on everything that was approved before he joined the commission in September 2019. Hartmann said he thought it would be better for Huss to sign checks, since Huss runs the day-to-day operations for parks. Chairman Bill Featherstone agreed.
Bardin said the finances are in disarray, saying Huss has used funds out of the one-eighth-cent tax that shouldn't be used.
"Do you have data to that point?" Huss asked. "Are you going to start making more accusations, Scott?"
"You ought to be quiet," Bardin said. "I have the chair."
Huss said Bardin hasn't called him one time to talk about parks finances.
"You were supposed to come to the office and we were supposed to go through procedures," Huss said. "I haven't heard a single word, except you talking with the legislative audit and talking to the bank."
If the commission wants to micromanage his position, Huss said, that's their choice.
"We have serious discussions to be had, but I would certainly appreciate no comments about misappropriation of funds without proof on the table that second," Huss said. "Let's get these books right. Let's get good reports, but then let's also decide what we're doing … because we're getting into some serious micromanaging here and if that's what you want to do, then you don't need an executive director."
"Is that a motion?" Bardin asked.
Huss said he can't make motions.
"If we're just going to make motions and go off the agenda anyhow," Huss said, "you can do whatever you want. In my eyes, we're at the end of our meeting and we're supposed to be making comments and adjourning, but we're adding stuff to the agenda."
Featherstone then asked Bardin to remove his motion and Bardin refused. The commission voted, with Bardin and Steven Foster voting in favor of removing Huss' check signing authority, Ruth Hager voting against it and Hartmann and Draxie Rogers abstaining. The motion failed for lack of majority.
Before the meeting adjourned, Featherstone said he supports Huss.
"Until such time as you decide that somebody should not be your director, you stand behind them," Featherstone said, "and the last thing you do is ridicule them in public. You do not do that. That's not the way to do business, not if you care about parks."
On Monday, Featherstone stood by that sentiment. Featherstone said he's waiting for the results of the 2019 audit to get a better idea of the parks finances.
“I have no reason not to believe Justin," Featherstone said. "What's best for the commission is to wait for the results of the audit. I think that's going to answer a lot of questions."
Commissioner Christian Super, who was not at the meeting, said he would have wanted to defer the issue until more information is available on parks finances. When asked if he trusts Huss to sign checks, Super said he hasn't formed an opinion on that yet.
"I don't view any action Justin has taken so far as being malicious," Super said.
Bardin said he made the motion to remove Huss' ability to sign checks as a means of internal control.
"No one should ever have the ability to go to a bank and use a blank countercheck to withdraw money," Bardin said.
Huss maintained that the commission voted to approve that expenditure and said he transferred money to create a cashier's check for the purchase. Bardin's comment was inappropriate, Huss said.
"It was inflammatory and apparently grandstanding," Huss said. "Mr. Bardin worked through our audit process. He was going to come and examine and work through all our data and, to date, I've had no contact with him. These accusations and slanderous comments he's made are very easily addressed in our system."
In the week since the meeting, Bardin said, his stance remains the same.
"My perception hasn't changed at all," Bardin said.
Hartmann said he wasn't super alarmed by Bardin's claim.
"But, again, I want to prove to myself it's not a real issue," Hartmann said.
Rogers said she trusts Huss to keep doing what he's doing.
"He knows what's going in and what's coming out," Rogers said. "I totally trust Justin. He has done a marvelous job for us."
Rogers added, "This last meeting –– my gosh, I've never been to a parks meeting like that."
Huss said he was frustrated that the check signing issue came up at the end of the meeting, once the commission had finished voting on agenda items.
"We were at adjournment at that point," Huss said.
Super said he is "100 percent" against voting on items added at the meeting.
"I'd prefer things to be published in advance so the public has the ability to know what's on the agenda," Super said.
"It was something that wasn't on the agenda," Hartmann said. "We had said we'd put it on the agenda if we were going to vote on it."
Bardin said that item was on the agenda. The commission did vote to create a new signature card on all bank accounts, but discussion of the director's authority to sign checks was not on the agenda.
"You can make a motion to add until you've adjourned the meeting," Bardin said. "You can make a motion as long as the meeting had not been adjourned during that session, but that wasn't done."
Hager did not return a call for comment and neither did Foster, who resigned from the commission on Thursday, Jan. 23.
The commission's next regular meeting is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 18, at The Auditorium.