Fired by text: Parks commission removes director without public vote
By Samantha Jones and Scott Loftis
After serving as the Eureka Springs parks director for more than four years, Justin Huss has been fired.
"I can confirm I was relieved of my duties as executive director Friday afternoon via text message," Huss said Sunday, Oct. 11.
The Eureka Springs Parks and Recreation Commission, which hired Huss in February 2016, did not vote in public session to fire Huss. Carroll County Newspapers has obtained documents alleging that the commission held illegal meetings and violated the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act over the past year, something managing editor Scott Loftis observed at the commission's last public meeting on Wednesday, Oct. 7.
At the Oct. 7 special meeting, chairwoman Ruth Hager announced that the commission would be going into executive session "to discuss a personnel issue."
The commission returned to public session 59 minutes later. Hager asked if there were any motions and none were offered. After a motion to adjourn, the meeting ended without any further discussion.
The commission followed the same procedure at its Sept. 15 meeting, where commissioner Dave Hartmann moved to "retire into executive session to discuss a personnel issue." The commission returned to public session 71 minutes later and took no action.
The commission allegedly held an illegal meeting on Sept. 26, 2019, which was reported by former parks employee Dove Bolerjack and current parks employee Nicky Boyette in statements emailed to Huss. The meeting lasted approximately 80 minutes, according to Bolerjack's statement. In recordings obtained by Carroll County Newspapers, the commission can be heard discussing topics including FOIA requests, hiring an auditing firm and their perceptions of citizen Linda McBride, who submitted more than 30 FOIA requests over the past couple of years.
An hour before the Oct. 7 meeting, Hartmann indicated that the commission would go into executive session to discuss a personnel issue. When told by a reporter that the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to announce a specific reason for an executive session, Hartmann said he wasn't aware of that. The reporter then emailed a copy of the state FOIA handbook to Hartmann.
“(E)xecutive sessions will be permitted only for the purpose of considering employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining, or resignation of any public officer or employee,” the FOIA says, with the only exception being for matters related to the security of a public water system or utility system. “The specific purpose of the executive session shall be announced in public before going into executive session.”
Kim Stryker, assistant to Mayor Butch Berry, told Loftis after the Oct. 7 meeting that the state’s FOIA handbook makes no mention of the requirement that the specific purpose of an executive session be announced in public. After being informed that the handbook does mention that requirement, Stryker indicated her belief that the commission had satisfied the requirement by saying it planned to discuss a personnel issue.
In an Oct. 8 email to Stryker and Berry, Loftis raised concerns over the executive session. Loftis cited the text of the act and also referred to a statement by Little Rock attorney John Tull earlier this year.
Tull is a partner in the Little Rock law firm of Quattlebaum, Grooms and Tull who represents the Arkansas Press Association and is widely recognized as an expert on Arkansas’ Freedom of Information Act. Tull is also a member of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Task Force.
Speaking in regard to a similar executive session held in January by the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission, Tull said: “When an entity goes into executive session, they must give a specific rather than a general reason. It can’t be just for personnel. It can be ‘we’re going for a personnel issue concerning hiring or firing somebody,’ or ‘we’re going for a personnel considerance regarding whether someone is going to be demoted.’ But it can’t be just a general personnel decision. … That’s clearly a violation.”
Loftis also contacted Carroll County prosecuting attorney Tony Rogers on Oct. 8 to discuss concerns about recent executive sessions held by both the Eureka Springs Hospital Commission and the parks commission.
“I believe there is a clear and obvious pattern by the Eureka Springs city government of failing to comply with both the letter and spirit of the FOIA, and my conversation with Ms. Stryker leads me to further believe that this behavior has been either tacitly or explicitly approved by the mayor’s office,” Loftis wrote in an email to Rogers.
On Friday, Oct. 9, Berry responded to Loftis via email.
“It is our understanding that your interpretation may be correct,” Berry wrote. “I am sending a notice to all commissions that from now on, they are to make a specific announcement that they are going into executive session for consideration of employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining, or resignation.
“Thank you for your concern.”
Later that day, Berry emailed all members of Eureka Springs city commissions to inform them of the requirement to announce a specific reason before going into executive session.
Huss addressed the commission's "blatant disregard concerning Open Meeting laws" in a grievance dated Jan. 24, 2020. In the grievance, Huss writes that commissioners "inappropriately" meet outside of regular or announced meetings and discuss topics that will be voted on in the future, including financial, personnel and officer election topics.
In an addendum dated Sept. 2, Huss writes that "this dynamic continues."
"Commissioner Hartmann, according to reliable sources, has had at least two occurrences of this type of behavior in the last two months alone," Huss writes. "I believe there is inappropriate communicating occurring between some commissioners, despite warnings and direct communication explaining the procedures, legal requirements and ethical standards for commissioners."
Huss lists the "inappropriate meeting procedures," which include agenda creation, agenda adherence and adherence to Robert's Rules of Order. Huss cites the commission's Jan. 22 meeting, where commissioner Scott Bardin moved 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. Bardin's motion came during discussion of approval of the minutes.
"This motion was way out of order, the proposed action contrary to department policy and was generally inappropriate and purposeful in my opinion," Huss writes.
In the Sept. 2 addendum, Huss writes that the commission still hasn't addressed these procedures.
"The agenda creation process is still loose at best and only operates at all thanks to the prodding and communicating from Commissioner [Christian] Super, who is not even the ESPRC Secretary," Huss writes.
Huss writes that the commission has failed to provide administrative support and to meet calendar requirements for staff to effectively complete their job duties, including delays in the financial audit and the failure to pass a fully considered budget. As of Sept. 2, Huss writes, the commission created a "placeholder budget" in February to be adjusted later in the year.
"This adjustment and review has never occurred," Huss writes.
At the commission's Sept. 1 meeting, Huss writes, Bardin and Hartmann stated that they had spoken with other accounting entities despite the commission's vote on Feb. 4 to retain the accounting services of Windle & Associates.
"There is no official empowerment for these commissioners to take this action from the commission and there has been no reporting of this activity prior to last night," Huss writes in the Sept. 2 addendum. "Once again, this activity is outside of official channels, which is inappropriate, and has a negative result that further worsens the commission's already deficient financial processes, including furthering a hostile work environment."
Huss writes that the commission failed to provide the Eureka Springs City Council with quarterly reports for the third and fourth quarter of 2019. In the Sept. 2 addendum, Huss writes that the commission "did finally produce the quarterly statements for 2019" but still hasn't submitted the quarterly statements for the second quarter of 2020, as well as revised statements for the first quarter.
Huss writes that Bardin has made "slanderous comments" in public meetings, again citing the commission's Jan. 22 meeting where Bardin stated that he was concerned about an $18,000 purchase he found in the bank statements. Bardin said Huss' was the only signature on that check. Huss writes that the expense created a cashier's check, the same amount for a commission-approved capital purchase.
"Mr. Bardin has discussed the matter previously with the director, and as a result I believe this statement was purposeful to hurt my reputation," Huss writes.
Huss writes that the "overall behavior, communications, actions and inactions" by some commissioners have had a negative effect on staff morale, creating a "perceived hostile work environment for the director and staff." In the Sept. 2 addendum, Huss writes that this behavior has continued. Huss recalls receiving a phone call from Hager about a specific interaction she had with Hartmann at his business in Eureka Springs.
"Commissioner Hartmann wanted to discuss parks with [Hager], despite her repeated statements that it was not appropriate," Huss writes. "She stated to me that Commissioner Hartmann continued with park related topics and made the statement to her that, 'Now that there are three of us, we can get rid of [Huss].' "
Huss writes that Hager informed Mayor Butch Berry of this conversation.
"I believe the documentation of that conversation should take place in, at the very least, a deposition form and appropriate follow through must occur," Huss writes.
Huss writes that he observed Hartmann and commissioner Sam Dudley fist bump in the parking lot before the commission's Sept. 1 meeting.
"I overheard partial statements that included, 'Now…,' 'Yeah we will' and nods to each other while laughing," Huss writes.
Huss writes that "after learning of the statements made," he believes Dudley is one of the three commissioners mentioned by Hartmann to Hager.
In an Oct. 5 memo sent to Berry, all city council members and all parks and recreation commission members, Huss writes that he spoke with city attorney Tim Weaver about the commission's alleged illegal meeting, as well as "continued illegal, inappropriate contact" between commissioners before and after that meeting. Weaver advised him that votes taken on issues discussed in illegal meetings "are not valid, nor would future votes related to that or votes related to other types of illegal or inappropriate communication be valid."
Huss writes that the topics and votes affected by the alleged illegal meeting and communications include the 2020 budget or amended budget, approval of the third and fourth-quarter 2019 financials, approval of all 2020 financial reports, accounting processes, trails policies, events and employee reviews and personnel decisions.
"As listed in my original grievance … grievance processes are not available to me as defined in the ESPRC manual or city employee handbook," Huss writes. "I continue to believe that this matter should involve the city council ensure the council is fully aware and can take any steps needed to protect the city."
Commission, council response
All six city council members — Mickey Schneider, Melissa Greene, Susan Harman, Bob Thomas, Terry McClung and Harry Meyer — confirmed on Oct. 5 that they are aware of Huss' grievance. Harman said her biggest concern is that the council hasn't received a financial report from the commission all year.
"I still don't have financials. I know they have a responsibility to provide us financials and they haven't figured out how to come together to get it done," Harman said.
McClung said the grievance took him by surprise, and Meyer said he's not sure why Huss sent the grievance to the council. Meyer said the parks commission is "completely separate" from the council.
"It's the parks commission's responsibility to write the checks, to hire [Huss] and to fire [Huss]," Meyer said.
Hartmann said on Oct. 7 that he wasn't aware of Huss' grievance and Hager said she was aware of it.
"If [Huss] has grievances, he's doing the right thing by following procedure," Hager said.
When asked on Monday, Oct. 12, for clarification regarding Huss' firing, Berry said he couldn't "really comment on what's happened and how that came about." Berry referred to his email correspondence with Loftis when asked about the commission's violations of FOIA law.
"I have nothing else to say on the matter," Berry said.
Greene gave no comment when contacted on Oct. 5 but sent an email on Oct. 10 to all the parks commissioners addressing Huss' firing. In the email, Greene writes, "I know all of you were faced with a very hard decision. I appreciate that it appears you took a lot of time and thought in coming to it. I know it was not easy."
"I believe each of you brings something special to the parks commission. I am excited to see in the coming months the progress and new ideas for our parks!" Greene writes. "I wish all of you well and hopefully will get the chance to continue working with all of you."
When asked on Oct. 13 if the commission should have voted in public session to fire Huss, city attorney Tim Weaver gave no comment.
Dudley said he was aware of the grievance on Oct. 7. When asked about the details behind Huss' firing on Oct. 11, Dudley said he wanted to talk with his fellow commissioners before commenting. A reporter asked if the commission would be discussing the topic at a public meeting, and Dudley said, "Yes, we'll have a public meeting at some point."
Bardin, Super, Burden and commissioner Kevin Ruehle did not return calls for comment.