Top stories: CAPC beset by controversy in 2021

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission had a busy and controversial 2021, marked by changes in staff and commissioners, a lawsuit that remains unsettled at the start of 2022 and a police investigation that remains open after more than 10 months.

The controversy surrounding the CAPC began less than two weeks into the new year, when then-commissioner Bobbie Foster revealed at a Jan. 13 workshop that Tracy Johnson, who was then the CAPC’s special events coordinator, hadn’t been paid in weeks.

Johnson had worked as an independent contractor for two years, and the commission approved a budget in November 2020 that included a full-time events coordinator position as a city employee. However, some commissioners said at the Jan. 13 workshop that there had been no decision to hire Johnson for the position, and Mayor Butch Berry refused to sign off on paperwork submitted by then-interim director Gina Rambo to hire Johnson at a salary of $37,000 a year.

At a special meeting on Jan. 20, the commission voted to pay Johnson as an independent contractor through Jan. 31. At its regular meeting a week later, the commission voted not to hire a special events coordinator.

At the same Jan. 27 meeting, the commission voted on a motion to remove commissioner Greg Moon from his seat because he was no longer employed at a hotel or restaurant. After the six other commissioners voted 3-2 with one abstention, then-chair Carol Wright declared Moon’s seat vacant, although she never actually cast the necessary fourth vote.

The controversy continued in February, when the commission voted to strip Rambo of her interim director title. That decision was made at a Feb. 19 meeting. Five days later, the commission voted to terminate Rambo altogether after a 30-minute executive session.

At the Feb. 24 meeting, newly elected chairman Jeff Carter revealed that he had met with Eureka Springs police chief Brian Young on Feb. 8 to “discuss the possibility of misconduct within the CAPC.” Young confirmed that an investigation was ongoing and said more details would be available after the investigation was completed. As of early December, Young said the investigation remained active and declined to release information requested by Carroll County Newspapers under the state’s open-records law, although no arrests have been made and no charges have been filed.

In March, Rambo and Johnson, along with Moon, then-finance director Rick Bright and then-group sales coordinator Karen Pryor filed a wide-ranging lawsuit against the commission as a whole along with commissioners Carter, Wright, James DeVito, Melissa Greene and Harry Meyer. Other defendants included the city, Berry, his administrative assistant Kim Stryker and two insurance companies that provide policies for the city. The suit was later amended to add Patrick Burnett — who had been nominated by the commission and confirmed by the city council as Moon’s replacement — as a defendant.

Among the allegations in the lawsuit are that Moon’s dismissal from the commission was illegal, that Wright was never eligible to serve on the commission because she lived outside Eureka Springs and that state law prohibits the appointment of city council members such as Greene and Meyer to an advertising and promotion commission.

After a hearing in April, Carroll County Circuit Judge Scott Jackson ruled in May that the commission does not have the legal authority to remove one of its members. Jackson ordered that Moon be reinstated to the commission. At the conclusion of a nearly two-hour hearing in June, Jackson ruled that the appointments of Wright, Green and Meyer were legal. He later refused a motion by the plaintiffs’ attorney, Tim Parker, to reconsider his ruling. Parker then filed an appeal with the Arkansas Supreme Court that remains pending.

In July, the commission hired Madison Dawson as its tourism director after interviewing her and one other candidate.

Moon resigned from the CAPC in August, calling the turmoil surrounding the commission “a fiasco.” The CAPC then nominated Burnett to again fill Moon’s seat and the city council confirmed the appointment.

Both Bright and Pryor later announced their retirements, meaning none of the plaintiffs in the still-pending lawsuit are current CAPC employees.

In October, Carroll County Newspapers — which publishes the Carroll County News and the Lovely County Citizen — filed a complaint with the Carroll County prosecuting attorney’s office after the commission violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act by going into executive session to discuss a raise for employee Sarai Aleshire. The commission committed a procedural violation as well when it took a vote on the issue before it adjourned the executive session, even though the vote was taken in public.

Carroll County prosecuting attorney Tony Rogers referred the complaint to a Little Rock-based special prosecutor Jack McQuary. McQuary said in December that he was working with Eureka Springs city officials and the state attorney general’s office to set up a training session in February, although he didn’t provide specific details.

“It’s my belief that several people are just ignorant to the FOIA law on it,” McQuary said.

The CAPC’s first meeting of 2022 originally was scheduled for Jan. 12, but was rescheduled to Tuesday, Jan. 4.

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