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Airing of Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful, Cherry Blossom Festival feud does not mend rift

KMBBC CEO and Cherry Blossom chair still at odds over Pink House

After a three-hour called Macon-Bibb Commission meeting Oct. 31, 2017, about strife between the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission and Cherry Blossom Festival, leaders of the organizations are still at odds over the Pink House.
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After a three-hour called Macon-Bibb Commission meeting Oct. 31, 2017, about strife between the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission and Cherry Blossom Festival, leaders of the organizations are still at odds over the Pink House.

A three-hour public hashing of a rift between the Cherry Blossom Festival and the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission appeared to do little to resolve the conflict.

Macon-Bibb County Mayor Pro-Tem Bert Bivins initiated Tuesday’s called meeting to summon the two organizations that receive public funding to try to encourage reconciliation following a turbulent meeting Oct. 19. During that session, the festival asked the beautification commission to move out of the Pink House headquarters they share.

During the meeting, county representatives also threatened to pull the commission’s $110,000 funding for fiscal 2018 if its leaders don’t draft an action plan for tackling litter as well as submit regular finance and activity reports.

Tuesday’s special session ended on Commissioner Larry Schlesinger’s high note encouraging the parties to “make peace in the house,” but that did not seem likely.

Both Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful CEO Pam Carswell and Cherry Blossom Festival board chairman Don Bailey agreed it was a good meeting and felt a lot was productively shared, but in the end, Bailey was sticking by the festival’s request for Carswell to leave the house, while she thought she would be welcomed back after a medical procedure last week.

Bailey told reporters after the meeting: “I was shocked to hear Ms. Carswell say that she hadn’t agreed to it and wasn’t aware of it. ... We’re going do everything we can do to move forward but again, I can’t speak for KMBBC.”

Bailey told commissioners the festival has been pulled into an issue between the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful executive board, Carswell and the rest of the board.

The private dispute became a public battle after a KMBBC “discovery committee” formed without the executive committee’s knowledge.

Their mission was to document what Carswell and other board members perceived as an attempt by the executive board to oust Carswell and take over.

Three members of the KMBBC executive board, including chairman Adam Cochran, also serve on the Cherry Blossom Festival board. Bailey said Cochran is the designated KMBBC representative on the festival board, but the festival does not have a reciprocal designated representative on the beautification commission.

The other dual members, Theresa Robinson and Jean Bragg, serve because they are excellent businesswomen and community representatives who “open doors for us,” Bailey said.

Commissioner Joe Allen said it was “ludicrous” to have overlapping members because it stirs up trouble because it’s “hard to serve two masters.”

Bailey indicated that the discovery committee’s documentation of KMBBC executive board members’ actions, a report submitted to Mayor Robert Reichert, was the main reason Carswell was asked to leave.

He said the festival’s current focus is garnering sponsorships and fund raising that could be hurt by the infighting.

“Three of our board members and finance person being called out over ethics,” Bailey told commissioners. “We cannot let the Cherry Blossom Festival, our board members and our finance person be questioned in that public document.”

The discovery committee report, obtained through a Telegraph open records request, stated Cherry Blossom Festival finance director Amy Tarpley insinuated that KMBBC was over budget by $34,000 to $50,000, and that Bragg had accused Carswell of ordering the wrong size furniture for a recently renovated office, among other things.

According to the report, Carswell said she was not given an opportunity to address either concern.

The document also noted other meetings of executive board members that Carswell was not privy to. The memorandum ultimately called for the resignations of Cochran, Robinson, Bragg and Billy Oliver, a fourth member.

At the conclusion of Tuesday’s meeting, Carswell said that she had no desire to continue to push for their resignations.

“I think we need to focus on the future, and the future is both organizations working collaboratively for the betterment of the community,” she said.

When Carswell first took the microphone, she told commissioners she wanted to clear her name and remove the pall from over her board.

Besides touting KMBBC’s awards, recognition and beautification efforts, she apologized for anything she might have done to result in the public meeting.

She told commissioners her main task was to educate the community and foster litter prevention, not physically remove litter, as some might think.

KMBBC works with community cleanup organizations, she said.

Carswell told commissioners she had no idea that county officials were headed to the Oct. 19 board meeting, where they were expecting to work out their internal issues.

Commissioner Elaine Lucas was very interested in learning why interim County Manager Julie Moore, who also is a county finance director, county attorney Judd Drake and Chris Floore, director of external affairs for the mayor, attended the Oct. 19 meeting.

Floore also serves on the Cherry Blossom board.

Lucas suggested that they should have raised concerns with Carswell in private instead of during an open meeting that created a media firestorm.

“We’re supposed to put out fires, not add to it,” Lucas said.

Moore said it was their objective to inform the commission they did not have any legal standing to recommend that the executive committee resign, encourage them to focus on their mission and deliver the mayor’s message that funding was in jeopardy.

Bailey said he and Cherry Blossom President and CEO Stacy Moore, formerly Campbell, attended that Oct. 19 meeting to give a regular report to KMBBC.

He said they were told by at least four KMBBC members to leave the open meeting.

“I have never in my life seen anything like this,” Bailey said.

When Cochran, the KMBBC chairman, came to the microphone, he confirmed that his executive committee had no knowledge of the discovery committee.

He also said the Cherry Blossom Festival executive committee had called a meeting with the KMBBC’s executive committee, and they signed a confidentiality agreement not to disclose what they discussed.

Carswell also said Bailey sent notice forbidding her to have any contact or communication with Cherry Blossom officials.

After the meeting, Bailey said both the confidentiality agreement and halt in communication between the groups came “at the request of their attorneys.”

When asked about the cessation of communication, Bailey said he couldn’t speak “as far as issues internally, like that.”

Before Tuesday’s special session could get underway, Lucas asked if an executive, or closed, session could be added to the agenda to discuss sensitive issues.

Drake argued so adamantly against it that when a majority decided to suspend the rules to allow a closed session, he vowed not to attend.

Macon-Bibb commissioners reconsidered and agreed to have an executive session before the next regular meeting Nov. 7.

Bivins also asked representatives of the Industrial Authority to attend Tuesday’s session to brief commissioners on changes in the organization in the wake of chairman Cliffard Whitby’s resignation following his indictment in a bribery investigation.

The authority was asked to give an update on $25 million in SPLOST funds in the near future.

As the special session was winding down a little after 2 p.m., Lucas reiterated that airing all of the grievances was “a little embarrassing.”

Commissioners expect to follow up in executive session.

Schlesinger optimistically said the relationship between festival and beautification commission seems to have hit the worst point, but “from here it gets better.”

That remains to be seen.

Liz Fabian: 478-744-4303, @liz_lines

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