Working for free
No pay for events coordinator; CAPC commissioners at odds over job

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

The Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission hasn’t paid special events coordinator Tracy Johnson in weeks.

While some commissioners say Johnson agreed to transition from contract to full-time work last November, others say Johnson was never hired for the full-time position. Chairwoman Carol Wright said at the commission’s Jan. 13 workshop that the commission would need to call a special meeting to consider hiring Johnson for the position.

Johnson has served as the special events coordinator since 2019, when she was hired as a contract employee. Her contract was extended in 2020 and the commission agreed to make the special events coordinator a full-time position in 2021. Whether Johnson was hired for that position — and whether it’s the commission’s responsibility to hire anyone for the position — is up for debate.

Jan. 13 workshop

Tracy Johnson

At the commission’s Jan. 13 workshop, commissioner Bobbie Foster said she was concerned that Johnson wasn’t being paid.

“We have an employee that has worked for us for two years and did not receive a paycheck,” Foster said. “I feel like this is something that needs to be rectified and handled.”

Foster said she didn’t remember voting to post the events coordinator job online. Foster said she spoke with Mayor Butch Berry, who told her the job posting would stay on the city’s website until Jan. 31. She emailed finance director Rick Bright to check the minutes from the Nov. 18 meeting to see if the commission voted to post the job online, Foster said.

“And he could not find it,” Foster said.

She acknowledged that the commission can’t vote at workshops and suggested that the commission meet soon to “at least put [Johnson] back on her contract … and get her paid for the work she’s been doing up until the end of Jan. 31.”

Foster referred to her employees at Mud Street Cafe and said many of them work paycheck to paycheck.

“And I would never, ever as an employer not pay one of my employees,” Foster said. “I’m very disturbed about it.”

Commissioner Greg Moon asked who posted the job online and Foster said she believed it was Wright. Wright said interim director Gina Rambo posted the job. Rambo said she hadn’t planned to post the job online because Johnson was “just switching from a contract employee to a salaried employee.”

“That was the understanding for most of us,” Rambo said.

Rambo said she received a couple of phone calls from Wright and Kim Stryker, assistant to the mayor, implying that it was illegal for the job not to be posted.

“So [Bright] and I decided we would just post it on 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.]”

That’s when she was told that the job would be posted until Jan. 31, Rambo said, and her contact information was removed from the posting and replaced with Bright’s.

“And I believe [Bright] was directed to put it on,” Rambo said.

Wright said Rambo asked Stryker to post the job online, and Rambo said that isn’t how it happened.

“I received a phone call warning me that you had been in discussions, because you thought it was … the law for the job to be posted, which is not the case here,” Rambo said.

Wright said former commissioner Susan Harman “insisted … that we do our policies and procedures the way the city does it.”

The city requires a position to be posted for 30 days, Wright said.

“It wasn’t a new position,” Rambo said. “It was [Johnson] transitioning.”

Wright said Johnson was a contractor and said the commission created a new position. Moon said the commission gave Johnson the option of remaining a contract employee or transitioning to a full-time employee and Rambo agreed. Rambo said Johnson was not informed that when she gave up the contract position, she gave up the position in its entirety.

Commissioner Jeff Carter told everybody to “take a deep breath” and said the issue was that the commission “didn’t follow through fully.” Carter said the commission didn’t vote to hire Johnson. The commission voted to approve the 2021 budget that included the full-time special events coordinator position, Carter said, but never voted to hire Johnson for that position.

“We never had a vote that said we’re definitely going to hire [Johnson],” Carter said.

Rambo said she’s worked at the CAPC for nine years. During that time, Rambo said, she’s seen the director hire the staff.

“I watched [former executive director] Mike Maloney hire five different events people,” Rambo said. “It was never discussed before the commission.”

“It still falls upon this commission to decide,” Carter said. “This commission will decide if we want to hire someone.”

Foster said she wanted to figure the situation out sooner rather than later.

“It particularly troubles me when I know how tough times are right now that we’ve got a person who in good faith thought they were going to get paid, thought that they were just switching and transitioning, and for whatever reason, that hasn’t happened,” Foster said. “[Johnson’s] probably got some rent due. She’s probably got some bills to pay.”

Foster said Johnson has been working every day in January.

“Yesterday, she was at a meeting at the Passion Play,” Foster said. “She has been working and we need to pay her.”

Former commissioner Terry McClung, a Eureka Springs City Council member who served on the commission in 2020, said he understood that Johnson would transition into a full-time employee at the commission’s Nov. 18 meeting. McClung said the commission is responsible for hiring and firing two positions: the executive director and the finance director.

“The other staff falls under the purview of the director. They hire. They fire,” McClung said. “It’s not ours, never was ours as a choice.”

“So you show me in the bylaws or show me any paperwork that backs up what you just said,” Carter said.

“I don’t have that,” McClung said.

“That’s the problem. That’s been the problem,” Carter said. “The commission still has to … we have to make those decisions.”

Johnson said she believes that each department head is in charge of hiring and firing employees.

“There is such a thing as precedent that gets set and that is very, very important,” Johnson said.

Wright said the commission needed to have a special called meeting which would take place entirely in executive session to vote on hiring Johnson for the position. Wright said she’d make sure everyone has a copy of the Nov. 18 meeting minutes before that special meeting takes place. New commissioner Melissa Greene said Johnson should be paid for the work she’s done in January.

“If she has worked … she should be paid up to the time that she will,” Greene said. “That’s only fair.”

Wright said she informed Rambo that Johnson would not be on payroll “when the form came through for payroll this year.”

“I do have one more question, Carol,” McClung said. “What gives you the authority to do all that?”

Wright said the commission is “really trying hard this year to abide and do things the way city council has been doing.”

“I’m not really sure what that means,” McClung said.

Wright said the city council policies and procedures state that a job will be advertised for at least 30 days, saying Rambo’s request to advertise for the special events position was issued on Dec. 16.

“Given the holidays, it wasn’t even two weeks,” Wright said. “So if you’re being fair and you’re being legal, you’re supposed to open it for 30 days, not four or eight.”

Foster read from the Arkansas Municipal League handbook, stating that cities are not required to advertise city employment. Carter said the commission needs to make a decision about the special events coordinator position and said arguing about it wasn’t going to help anybody.

“I don’t think this is arguing, Jeff,” Foster said. “This is me stating a fact. I’m not arguing with anyone. I’m stating a fact, and the fact of the matter is, this is the municipal law.”

Foster asked Wright if she had a conversation with Rambo about extending the job posting past Dec. 31 and Wright said she called Rambo to let her know. Wright recalled the Nov. 18 meeting, saying she believed the commission agreed to hire for the special events coordinator position.

“Not that it was necessarily [Johnson], although she would make sense because she’s been in the position, but she would have to apply as would others,” Wright said.

Foster said that’s not how she remembered that meeting happening.

“At the time when we specifically stated [Johnson’s] name, specifically stated [Johnson’s] salary and we specifically stated that it was in the budget and then we voted on the budget … in my brain, it was a done deal,” Foster said. “I didn’t realize anything more needed to be done.”

McClung agreed with Foster and said he believed Johnson was taking the full-time position at the Nov. 18 meeting.

“If I had any idea that there would have been a need for a vote, I would have called for it that night,” McClung said. “Then we wouldn’t be having this issue.”

Nov. 18 meeting

At the Nov. 18 meeting, the commission discussed Johnson’s position several times. Harman asked if Johnson would be willing to transition from contract to a full-time employee, and Rambo confirmed that Johnson would be working full time in 2021.

When discussing salaries, Wright asked Bright how much the special events coordinator would be making and Bright said he budgeted $42,000 for the position without benefits. Bright referred to Johnson’s salary when asked about the position.

“If [Johnson] took the health insurance, it would drop to $37,000,” Bright said.

Also at the meeting, Carter said he’d like a line-by-line budget for all special events and Johnson said she could get an estimate of what the overall events would cost. Johnson said she could get “an educated guess on what’s happened in the past with a variance based on the artist” and Carter said that would be fine.

After commissioner James DeVito insisted on going into executive session to discuss salaries, McClung asked if the employees know what they are getting paid.

“We decide what they’re getting paid,” DeVito said.

“Isn’t it already in the budget?” McClung asked.

“We haven’t approved it,” DeVito said.

McClung then moved to approve the budget and the commission voted 4-2 to do so, with McClung, Moon, Harman and Foster voting yes and Carter and DeVito voting no.

Throughout the meeting, nobody said the special events coordinator job would be posted online or implied that Johnson wouldn’t be employed by the CAPC in January.

Revealing emails

It seems Johnson had no idea the job would be posted online. In an email dated Dec. 14, Johnson plans a meeting with Rambo, Wright and interim parks director Scott Miskiel to discuss plans for the Fat Tire Festival in 2021.

An email exchange between Rambo and Berry further reveals what happened behind the scenes. In an email dated Jan. 12, Rambo writes that the commission didn’t vote to hire Johnson at the Nov. 18 meeting. That’s because the commission doesn’t vote to hire the staff, Rambo writes.

“The commission did ask [Johnson] if she wanted to switch from a contract employee to salaried employee,” Rambo writes. “When she agreed, her 2021 salary was discussed and is part of the commission’s approved 2021 budget.”

Rambo writes that it has always been her understanding that the director hires the staff.

“In fact, [Bright] even hired staff as interim director his first time,” Rambo writes. “There was also never any involvement from the mayor’s office other than the signature.”

Rambo writes that she’s not “trying to do anything sneaky or shady.”

“So all these crazy accusations of ‘illegal’ — both in this situation and many of the others — couldn’t be further from the truth,” Rambo writes.

Rambo writes that she posted the job because she received a phone call warning her that Wright and Stryker were “scheming … to get me in trouble for hiring [Johnson] without posting the job.”

“[Wright] actually confirmed this with [Bright] telling him ‘Don’t tell Gina,’ ” Rambo writes. “So [Bright’s] advice was to go ahead and send [Stryker] the posting and to post it on to nip this in the bud.”

The reason she posted the job online, Rambo writes, is because she “just wanted any nonsense to be stopped so I can do my job.” Rambo writes that she mistakenly told Stryker to post the job until Jan. 31 and immediately emailed Stryker correcting the deadline to Dec. 31.

“Rather than [Stryker] correcting it, there was more communication with just [Wright] … and they kept the deadline of January 31st and changed it to Rick receiving all applications,” Rambo writes. “The finance director does not/never has had anything to do with staff.”

Berry responds that Rambo is the interim director, not the formal director as Maloney and former director Lacey Ekberg were.

“There is a difference in what the commission will allow Interim Director do and not do,” Berry writes.

Berry writes that he was informed of Johnson’s full-time employment and that the position was still being advertised at the same time.

“I did not feel comfortable signing off on [Johnson] going from a contract person to a full time employee while the position was still open and the fact that no one had signed off on hiring [Johnson],” Berry writes. “By ignoring the city advertising this position and then rejecting other applicants could also lead to a lawsuit.”

Berry writes that he’s upset about the CAPC staff’s communication with the city. He has gotten mixed communications from Wright, McClung and others about what happened at the Nov. 18 meeting, Berry writes, including what the commission meant by approving a budget.

“Just because a budget is approved, does not mean that a certain person is going to be continued in that job,” Berry writes.

In an email dated Jan. 13, Rambo asks for documentation proving that the interim director can’t hire or fire employees and states that Bright hired a finance director when he served as interim director years ago “without any commission approval or discussion.”

Rambo also writes that the commission approved Johnson’s specific salary at $37,000 with benefits and approved Johnson’s requested budget items for events planned for 2021 at its Nov. 18 meeting.

Commission response

When asked about the situation in a phone interview on Jan. 14, Moon said he didn’t understand why Johnson hasn’t been paid for her work in 2021. Moon said Wright is “trying to take [Johnson’s] position” and said Wright has treated him the same way.

“[Wright] tried to put out there that we needed to fill my position, which I haven’t been taken off yet,” Moon said.

Moon said it’s not the commission’s job to hire or fire Johnson. That’s Rambo’s responsibility, Moon said. In a phone interview on Jan. 15, McClung agreed and said Johnson should be paid for the work she’s doing now.

“I asked her, ‘Do you get paid in advance?’ and she said no,” McClung said. “You can’t hold someone’s paycheck up.”

Also in a phone interview on Jan. 15, Carter said he had no comment other than “the commission has to decide.” When asked if it’s the commission’s responsibility to hire someone for the special events position, Carter said, “Yes, the commission makes all the decisions.”

Wright responded to a text message from a reporter asking for comment and asked for the subject of the interview. When told the subject was the special events coordinator position, Wright did not respond further.

Greene said she has a lot of questions for the commission at its next special meeting and new commissioner Harry Meyer said he expects the commission to “iron this out” at the special meeting.

The meeting is scheduled for 4 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 20, at The Auditorium.

Foster and DeVito did not return calls for comment.

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  • Well here we go again. As I have said for over 15 years...Do AWAY WITH THE CAPC. This one will probably wind up in court and as broke as this town is that's the last place to be. How,are you going to cover that Butch? Raise water rates again. My Lord what a cluter***k

    -- Posted by Two6pac on Wed, Jan 20, 2021, at 8:23 PM
  • Why is it that every time Wright’s name is mentioned, there's usually some controversy, corruption or scandal involved? Between her and her lackey, Carter, there’s no name that immediately brings up as big of an “uh oh” in this town as hers and they always seems to be wanting to do something that going to hurt the businesses, the town and/or discourage tourism. Wherever there's a tax stream into the city, you can bet you'll get the same creepy people running towards it trying to control it. Now she’s even got the mayor’s office surreptitiously wrapped into it. The CAPC has become a bigger joke than ever and, amazingly, is even more messed up than Parks. I’m afraid the old “I don’t know anything about it” only works for so long, mayor. Like it or not, the facts in this article indicate your office's fingerprints are all over this. Congratulations. Sounds like you need to get your house in order, or you’ll be the mayor that presided during the elimination of the CAPC.

    -- Posted by outofthebox on Thu, Jan 21, 2021, at 12:05 PM
  • This virus has become such a disgusting tool used by some on the capc. It's bad enough we had to deal with its effects on our community for months, but now we have commissioners using it to try and shut down the only industry that actually pays for keeping this city going. In the process, they horribly and unfairly treat an employee who has done nothing but positive things for this city and has actually contributed more to its SAFE success than any of the anti-tourism commisioners. I completely understand that there are those on the capc who are older and, apparently, not in the best of health and they're, understandably, scared. This does not give them the right to selfishly bankrupt the businesses, their employees and the city even when they are taking the necessary, prescribed precautions. There is not one commissioner who could afford to live in Eureka Springs if not for the indirect provision of the taxes from the tourists and the working people here who serve them. Not one. The problem is, by the time they catch up to the rest of us and understand that, it's too late. So let's clean up the capc up or get rid of it.

    -- Posted by clptravel on Sat, Jan 23, 2021, at 10:29 AM
  • While there is much in your post I agree with...I would be hesitant to mention the affects of covid in the past tense. It's here and will probably be here for ever in some degree. While it does unfortunately present worse outcomes, including higher mortality in older folks, it is affecting all age groups.

    -- Posted by Two6pac on Sun, Jan 24, 2021, at 1:12 PM
  • I'm with two6pac at this point. End the CAPC. Let the businesses keep their money and spend it on their own advertising. It's too much of a temptation for some. I've even heard a few people suggest we take CAPC funds and spend them on city expenses. I'm not kidding. Taking even more money paid by hard working tourist workers and spending it on more things they already pay lots of taxes for in order to benefit these who don't want to contribute anything. What ever happened to the good old work ethic? It seems like the only work some people do here is search for tax revenues to leech on to.

    -- Posted by ksrt1950 on Mon, Jan 25, 2021, at 11:59 AM
  • Ksrt1950, unfortunately, you're 100% correct.

    -- Posted by clptravel on Tue, Jan 26, 2021, at 2:31 PM
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