Former Cherry Blossom Festival President and CEO Jake Ferro has filed a lawsuit seeking more than $2 million and reinstatement to his position, alleging he was wrongfully fired and that his reputation was disparaged by false statements.
The suit, which names the festival, board Chair Stacy Ingram, festival founder Carolyn Crayton and executive committee member William Fickling III, was filed in Bibb County Superior Court on Friday.
Ferro contends he was ousted without legitimate justification and in a public manner that “wrongly impugned his professional competency and presented him in a false light,” according to the lawsuit.
He further alleges the defendants breached their fiduciary duties, in part, by “repeatedly capitulating” to Crayton’s “whims regarding the operation” of the festival. Ferro argues Crayton disagreed with several of his decisions and urged the executive committee to remove him from his position.
Ferro maintains his firing was invalid and that he remains employed as the festival’s president and CEO, according to the lawsuit.
Contacted Wednesday, Crayton said she wasn’t aware of the lawsuit.
“I’m shocked,” Crayton said. “I wouldn’t know what to say.”
Ingram and Fickling, who also said they hadn’t seen the lawsuit, each declined comment citing advice of the board’s attorney.
Attempts to reach interim festival President Thomas Wicker were unsuccessful early Wednesday afternoon. A message left for Ferro’s Atlanta lawyer, Adam J. Conti, wasn’t immediately returned.
Ferro’s lawsuit contains claims of breach of contract, breach of fiduciary duty, slander and other allegations.
According to the lawsuit:
In August 2016, in the weeks leading up to a Macon-Bibb County Commission vote to approve renovations at Central City Park — the venue where many Cherry Blossom Festival events have traditionally been held — Ferro contends he and the festival’s executive committee wanted the city to suspend construction during the 2017 festival, which is set to begin March 24.
Ferro discussed the project with Mayor Robert Reichert.
Fickling urged Ferro in an Aug. 19, 2016, phone call to threaten Reichert with moving the festival to another location to stall the construction.
Ferro claims he never threatened Reichert or any other city official with moving the festival, although he alleges Ingram and Fickling told various people after his firing that he had. Ingram and Fickling’s false statements “irreparably” damaged his professional reputation, according to the suit.
The Telegraph reported last year that Reichert told commissioners at an Aug. 23 meeting that Ferro had issued a threat, but later clarified that there wasn’t a threat. The mayor further said Ferro wasn’t trying to “coerce” officials to stall the project.
Reached Wednesday, Macon-Bibb County spokesman Chris Floore said the front half of the park, the area used by the festival, is set to be reopened to the public March 17.
The front half of Central City Park, the area used by the Cherry Blossom Festival, is set to be reopened to the public March 17. Macon-Bibb County spokesman Chris Floore
The lawsuit goes on to say:
An executive committee meeting was held Aug. 25. After the meeting — which Ferro didn’t attend — Ferro asked what had happened and Fickling didn’t respond.
The same day, a board of directors meeting was held. No report of executive committee action regarding Ferro’s employment or performance was presented.
About two weeks later, on Sept. 6, Ingram and Fickling asked to meet with Ferro and asked for his resignation. He was given about two hours to decide.
Fickling told Ferro the board wanted to issue a news release about his departure that evening.
When Ferro asked why he was being asked to resign, Fickling responded, “board matters.”
Later that day, Ingram notified The Telegraph that the board had asked for Ferro’s resignation, a statement that Ferro alleges presented him in a “false light” by conveying the message that “some misconduct or deficiency” on his part precipitated his departure.
Ingram sent Ferro an email Sept. 9 telling him that, because he’d refused to resign, he was being fired.
Ferro contends Ingram and Fickling lacked authority to remove him from his position and that he was fired in a manner not allowed by the festival’s bylaws. He wasn’t allowed to participate in the Aug. 25 executive meeting and the written severance offer he was given Sept. 6 allowed him 30 days to consider whether to accept it.
Ferro argues he has been “socially shunned by the business and social communities” he interacted with while serving as festival president and CEO.
Ferro asked to appear before the board of directors at its Sept. 22 meeting to give his perspective about his departure, but his request was denied.
Under Ferro’s management, he contends the festival went “from the brink of insolvency to financial stability” with an “unprecedented increase in cash flow.” A permanent endowment was started and year-round staff was reduced from eight to four full-time positions.
Ferro argues he has been “socially shunned by the business and social communities” he interacted with while serving as festival president and CEO. He also says he suffered “substantial” physical distress, emotional harm and mental distress.
He’s seeking $2 million for harm and disparagement to his reputation, $100,000 for pain and suffering, pay for time he worked outside normal business hours and back pay plus compensation and benefits until he is restored to his position.
Ferro also wants a judge to direct the defendants to issue a public retraction of statements that he threatened Reichert and to issue a public statement that no deficiency in his performance or improper act led to the request for his resignation.
He additionally is seeking punitive damages and attorneys fees.