Members of the Fayetteville Advertising and Promotion Commission once again voted to reject the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce as a potential candidate to take over the commission when longtime executive director Marilyn Heifner retires in January.
The vote mirrored a 4-3 decision made during the commission’s regular meeting on Monday when commissioners twice met in a closed, executive session to narrow the field of over 50 applicants for the job. Commissioners first met privately to choose three finalists for the position, and later went back into executive session to discuss and vote to consider the chamber as a fourth finalist.
Friday’s special meeting was called at the request of Vince Chadick, the commission’s attorney, who said Monday’s private vote to dismiss the chamber was not appropriate.
“You can make a decision in executive session, but that action doesn’t become legal…unless you reconvene and have a public vote,” said Chadick.
The Arkansas Freedom of Information Act requires public meetings to be conducted in open session unless members of a public body are discussing the employment, appointment, promotion, demotion, disciplining or resignation of any public employee.
The intent of the law is to ensure individual job applicants don’t have their qualifications debated in public – something that could jeopardize their future employment possibilities or their current job if their employer is not aware they’ve applied for a new job.
Chadick said because the chamber is an organization and not an individual person, those same protections do not apply.
Heifner and other commissioners have said they were not aware of any possible violations of the law, and were open with the public – including reporters – about the vote which took place while in executive session.
“We didn’t think we’d done anything wrong,” said Heifner after Monday’s meeting. “We were considering the chamber as a fourth candidate and thought the discussion procedure was the same for all applicants.”
Commissioners Hannah Withers and Bobby Ferrell made similar remarks on Friday.
“In my mind, we were considering (the chamber) as a candidate so we assumed that an executive session was where we should’ve done that,” Withers said.
“There was no intent than to do anything other than our jobs,” said Ferrell.
Chadick was not at Monday’s regular meeting, but was in attendance on Friday and recommended the group rehash the entire discussion and vote in public.
The discussion and vote
Commissioners took turns explaining their original reasons for voting on Monday and why they wouldn’t reverse their decisions.
Withers said while the chamber may be well-versed in economic development, their advertising, promotion and marketing abilities do not meet the same quality standards as that of the A&P Commission.
“I think their website is outdated and I think their accessibility and social media efforts are not at the level that the A&P office is,” said Withers. “I don’t think that if they were a personal candidate, that we would bring them back for a second interview.”
She also said she was worried that a change to an unconventional management approach could lead to employee turnover within the various commission departments.
“I think we should try and keep things as close to what they are now so we can continue to get the support from the staff that’s been doing these jobs for a long time,” said Withers.
Matt Behrend said he didn’t think the chamber presented many specific benefits in their proposal, but was interested in exploring their ideas.
“I had a lot of questions as to what direction they see the A&P Commission going and (wanted to) just get further information instead of just shutting off the tap,” said Behrend. “I wanted a little bit more in the bucket to make a decision.”
Ferrell and Justin Tennant agreed, and said when considering a potential job candidate, it’s good to look beyond what’s been presented on paper.
“I’ve hired and fired dozens of people,” said Tennant. “And the way I do it is I look at not only the candidates and what’s on their resumes, but also what potential they may bring later on.”
Tennant said he thought the chamber could bring budgeting and management experience, a knowledgeable history of the city, and an ability to work with potential partners from outside Fayetteville.
“I would bring them back as a candidate because I haven’t seen enough to discount them in their abilities, but I have seen enough to think that they belong in the pool along with the three people we are flying in (for a formal interview),” said Tennant. “I don’t see the harm in that.”
Matthew Petty said if a fourth candidate were needed, there are plenty of more qualified applicants than the chamber.
“I just don’t think they make the cut,” said Petty. “I think if we are going to bring back other people, there are other candidates we should bring back first.”
Tim Freeman said his concerns were not about job qualifications, but rather with the concept of a private organization managing a public entity.
Freeman said the chamber’s recent announcement to campaign for a repeal of the city’s new civil rights ordinance was inappropriate for an organization seeking to manage taxpayer dollars.
“I think that’s totally appropriate for the chamber to do as a membership-based organization,” said Freeman. “But I don’t think it’s appropriate for them to be running a taxpayer branch of government like the A&P Commission.”
Chair Ching Mong said while he was intrigued by the opportunities that could arise from a future partnership between the chamber and the commission, he was not comfortable handing over the keys to a group with an unfamiliar management style at this time.
“Our purpose right now is to find a replacement for Marilyn and I feel like that is what we should focus on,” said Mong.
The idea failed by a 4-3 vote with commissioners Behrend, Ferrell and Tennant voting for the idea, and Freeman, Mong, Petty and Withers voting against.