Editor's Note: This version corrects a previous error regarding former Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Department Director April Layher's resignation date. She resigned on June 1.THE ISSUE: Under Arkansas law, any actions taken during executive sessions by governmental bodies must be voted on during the public portion of the meeting. THE IMPACT: The Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Commission did not hold a proper public vote after agreeing in executive session to hire Trudy Redus as the department's new director, putting into question whether or not her hiring is legal.
Three Pine Bluff Parks and Recreation Commissioners opposed the hiring of Trudy Redus as director of the department but say they were not given a chance to voice their nays at a public meeting, which is an apparent violation of Arkansas law.
Commissioners Alexandra Kosmitis and Krandon Henry contacted the Commercial late last week to discuss the Monday, July 10, meeting at which the commission appeared to hire Redus with eight commissioners voting yes and none voting no.
But Commission Chairman Omar Allen did not call for a proper vote during the public portion of the meeting held directly after an executive session to discuss the hiring of a new director. Immediately after the meeting, Allen told the Commercial that the commission voted 8-0 on the motion to hire Redus.
Contacted by the Commercial Thursday afternoon, Allen was asked to clarify why the vote wasn't taken outside of executive session. He responded that Krandon Henry, Alexandra Kosmitis and Harold Clark voted against hiring Redus in executive session.
Allen did not answer a question on why he did not allow commissioners to vote during the public portion of the meeting. Allen also did not answer additional questions via email and did not return two phone calls regarding the issue on Friday.
According to Chapter 19, Section 4, of Arkansas Code Annotated 25-19-106, “No resolution, ordinance, rule, contract, regulation, or motion considered or arrived at in executive session will be legal unless, following the executive session, the public body reconvenes in public session and presents and votes on the resolution, ordinance, rule, contract, regulation, or motion.”
City of Pine Bluff Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott said the Parks and Recreation Commission is an autonomous body and that the city does not oversee it.
“They hire and fire. They have that level of authority,” she said. “Generally, we do not involve ourselves.”
Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington did not return a phone call by press time. The city is currently considering whether to disband the parks commission in favor of running it as other city departments are: under the auspices of the mayor's office. This consideration is not related to the hiring of Redus as director but rather concerns by some city aldermen about the poor state of some of the city's parks and facilities.
Kosmitis said she wanted to set the record straight regarding the July 10 meeting.
“Omar called for a vote on making Trudy Redus permanent director and dropping the interim label,” she said. “But the vote was not unanimous and he did not call for the no's. I cannot discuss what happened in executive session. I am realizing that he did not call for the no's. I would have voted 'no' on this motion.”
“I have a duty as a commissioner to do what I feel is best for our city,” Kosmitis continued. “I want the people of Pine Bluff to know how I felt about it. A lot happened Monday night and I was expecting him to call for the no's. When he did not, I did not grasp it at the time. Looking back, I wished I had said 'Omar, we need to do a roll-call vote.' I did not really process it until afterwards.”
Henry emailed the Commercial to say “the vote in our executive session WAS NOT unanimous, and if you'll remember from the public portion of the meeting, the question was not brought forth for 'opposed' or 'abstaining.'”
In actuality, commissioners Reginald Johnson, Rodney Holcomb, Tina Owens, Quincy Pridgeon and Allen voted to hire Redus after meeting in executive session for more than an hour. Kosmitis, Clark and Henry also took part in the executive session. They did not get to vote in the open meeting. An effort to reach commissioner Clark was unsuccessful.
Commissioner Robert Jackson was absent from Monday's meeting.
About 60 people applied for the position of parks director. Redus, who had previously served as the assistant parks director, was promoted to interim director after former director April Layher resigned June 1, two weeks after the commission suspended her without pay for allegedly violating federal law by failing to pay overtime to two employees. Layher denied the accusation, and called the suspension “unjust and excessive.”
On Thursday afternoon, Kosmitis said the parks and recreation commissioners who serve on the personnel committee are supposed to interview applicants, and she objects to their decision not to interview applicants.
“I think we should have followed through with the search, see who applied and gone from there,” Kosmitis said. “I think that we need help and I wish we could collaborate with the city to get where our parks need to be. Our children are suffering. Our citizens are going elsewhere. This drama is hurting people. It is very frustrating. Pine Bluff people are going to other towns to use parks.”
White Hall Mayor Noel Foster said White Hall parks attract Pine Bluff residents and students from a large swath of Southern Arkansas. He welcomes the visitors.
“At the end of the school year, we have lots of schools that bring kids to our parks,” Foster said. “We sent a letter to schools asking them to make us aware when they are coming so we can accommodate them. We may have 300 kids coming one day and we want to be sure our facilities are ready.”
Foster said White Hall residents use Pine Bluff/Jefferson County Regional Park.
“Our parks are well-kept and shaded,” Foster said of White Hall. “We invest a lot of time and effort into our parks. Whenever people use our parks, we hope they eat at our restaurants and buy gasoline.”