Inside the Pink House: Accusations of bullying, a toxic environment, malicious gossip

The Cherry Blossom Festival and Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission headquarters located at the corner of Cherry and New streets.
The Cherry Blossom Festival and Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission headquarters located at the corner of Cherry and New streets. jvorhees@macon.com

The recent rift between the Cherry Blossom Festival and the CEO of the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission has been simmering for years.

Tensions boiled over in October when the festival’s executive board asked KMBBC’s Pam Carswell to move out of the Pink House headquarters, but there has been friction dating back to 2012 after Carswell was hired to head the community’s beautification efforts, The Telegraph has learned.

“The issues run deeper than what the public knows,” said Don Bailey, chairman of the Cherry Blossom Festival’s board.

Information obtained through Open Records Act requests as well as interviews with multiple people involved with both organizations show that Carswell has been accused of bullying workers, maligning festival and KMBBC board members and blowing minor issues out of proportion.

“That’s just malicious gossip,” Carswell said Friday in response.

When Carswell began work in June 2012 as the beautification commission’s executive director, Richard D. Brewer also was hired as Cherry Blossom president and CEO to replace Karen Lambert, who had resigned to take a position with the Peyton Anderson Foundation.

Before that time, the festival chief had always run the beautification commission, which Carolyn Crayton founded in 1974. The commission actually birthed the festival in 1982 in homage to the city’s Yoshino cherry trees and the generosity of the late William Fickling Sr., who is credited with spreading the trees throughout Macon.

Pam Carswell Telegraph file photo

Five years ago, both organizations were on the brink of financial insolvency. Board members for both groups felt having dual leadership would help shore them up.

“Pam certainly seemed to have a lot of the prerequisite experience for that,” former Cherry Blossom Festival board Chairman George McCanless said.

Four months later, Brewer wanted out.

Publicly, the festival said he wanted to move back home to Charleston, South Carolina, to be closer to his family. Privately, festival leaders wrangled with continual strife within the Pink House.

Carswell, a former Weaver Middle School principal who also was a candidate for the Cherry Blossom Festival CEO position when Brewer was hired, reported to Brewer.

That was not made clear to her, said Carswell, who was under the impression that she reported to the KMBBC board and chairman Mark Stevens.

Former festival staff members reported multiple flare-ups with Carswell before Brewer’s departure.

In one instance, though, Carswell said she couldn’t figure out why Brewer became angry over a billboard campaign for KMBBC.

“He did chase me up the stairs, ... and he was screaming at me,” Carswell said. “Everybody in the house was scared. I was trying to get away from him.”

Cherry Blossom Chairman George McCanless, left, presents a pink sport coat to Richard Brewer during a ceremony June 14, 2012, naming him the new Cherry Blossom Festival CEO. Beau Cabell bcabell@macon.com

Jake Ferro, another CEO candidate before Brewer’s hire, took the festival’s reigns temporarily in October 2012 and was offered the job permanently a few months later.

At that time, the Keep Macon-Bibb Beautiful Commission board created a CEO position for Carswell, who no longer would report to the festival president, Stevens said.

Almost immediately, Ferro noted difficulties working with Carswell.

“It was really not a healthy environment to work in,” Ferro said. “There seemed to be that contentious territorialism. Some little things were blown out of proportion.”

Ferro cited an instance in which Carswell said she felt disrespected because Ferro did not say hello to her in the morning. She took her concerns to the board, he said.

“It created an unhealthy environment in the Pink House. We could never seem to get into a good fit,” Ferro said.

Carswell said as a former principal, she was used to a more welcoming atmosphere, where students were taught to say “good morning” and be cordial.

“It’s not about control and being private,” she said.

‘Toxic and hostile’ work environment

Ferro, who lost his position as festival CEO in 2016, has filed a lawsuit against the Cherry Blossom Festival over his termination.

Through the civil action, Ferro’s attorney has requested statements from a June 2016 meeting, during which board member Bill Fickling III reportedly discussed Crayton’s meddling in festival affairs after her retirement and the board’s inability to please the founder.

The attorney’s request for documents pertaining to that meeting also mentioned discussion about Carswell’s perceived dissatisfaction. She reportedly wasn’t happy with Ferro or “anybody that was sitting in that seat,” according to the legal document that paraphrased Fickling’s remarks.

Emails from former Cherry Blossom Festival Finance Director Maria Garnto obtained by The Telegraph said Carswell bullied Garnto after Ferro fired Carswell’s daughter from a post at the festival.

“I have been the target of workplace bullying for over two years at the hands of Pam Carswell,” Garnto wrote, contending that Carswell was sullying her reputation, trying to control her and unjustly accusing her of inappropriate and illegal business actions.

Up until recently, the festival traditionally has shared its accountant with KMBBC, which paid 10 percent of the finance director’s salary.

Garnto wrote in a September 2016 email to the festival’s executive committee that the Pink House work environment “has become toxic and hostile” as Carswell “takes any interaction and spreads the word in a way that paints her in a positive light while tarnishing my reputation.”

Former administrative assistant Brandi Marks also documented an incident in which she said Carswell became upset about having a visitor show up early for a meeting. Carswell reportedly responded so loudly that she could be heard upstairs in the building.

Carswell said she did not recall the episode.

Marks also sent emails to festival leaders about Carswell’s allegedly disparaging the appearance of another local beautification representative behind the woman’s back.

Carswell said the overheard remarks were taken out of context.

Ferro said things had gotten so bad by the summer of 2016 that he talked to the board about hiring a business consultant to interview the staff and devise a way to better work together.

Jake Ferro Beau Cabell bcabell@macon.com

“The staff at the Pink House were on pins and needles,” Ferro said.

A mediator was brought in and spent about six hours talking with Carswell and Ferro, he said, but did not talk to other staff members about the issues that he, Garnto and Marks raised about Carswell’s behavior.

“It hurts me that top business people were afraid to make that decision, find out the sore spot and pull the trigger,” he said. “You can’t dance around a mediator singing Kumbaya.”

The next month, Ferro was asked to resign.

Garnto, who spent 10 years at the festival working for a half-dozen CEOs, said she reluctantly chose to find another job after her concerns about Carswell were not addressed.

She said Ferro wasn’t treated fairly.

“He did have nothing but the best intentions to turn the festival around and make a profit, and I think he was given mixed signals,” Garnto told The Telegraph.

Tensions continue to rise

With Ferro out, former Cherry Blossom Festival board Chairman Thomas Wicker temporarily took the helm before Stacy (Campbell) Moore was hired as festival vice president in October 2016 and later was promoted to CEO in March.

Moore rehired Carswell’s daughter, but let her go a few months later.

Tensions continued to rise in the headquarters building at the corner of Cherry and New streets, current staffers said.

Festival Chief Administrative Officer Amy Tarpley joined the staff in February and kept the books for KMBBC, just as Garnto had done.

After just a few months, Tarpley began having issues with Carswell that led to her resigning as KMBBC’s finance director in August, documents show.

“These last two months have been challenging, and my health is suffering from it,” Tarpley said in her resignation letter.

Financial issues Tarpley raised, such as the structure of the KMBBC budget and Carswell’s putting in for out-of-town mileage reimbursement in addition to her car allowance, became points of contention.

On Aug. 20, Tarpley sent her letter of resignation to Adam Cochran, the beautification commission’s board chairman, and Bailey, the festival chairman.

Carswell formed a “discovery committee” with some board members who are loyal to her and was later criticized for circumventing her executive board.

She believes the executive committee members, three of them serving on the festival board, were trying to oust her and shutting her out of meetings.

That discovery committee drafted a document detailing a timeline of alleged “raucous and unprofessional acts” by members of the KMBBC executive committee: Cochran, Theresa Robinson, Billy Oliver and Jean Bragg. The committee also implied there were inaccuracies in Tarpley’s budget presentation.

The discovery document was presented to Mayor Robert Reichert and called for the resignation of those executive board members.

Adam Cochran
Adam Cochran

At an Oct. 19 KMBBC board meeting, the discovery committee was to present the document to the board.

Members of Reichert’s staff intervened, however, and informed the board that the discovery committee did not have the authority to demand resignations from members who are appointed by the mayor.

Oliver and Bragg did resign that afternoon.

At that meeting, Carswell also was informed of the festival’s request for her to move out of the Pink House. Bailey had also asked Carswell to cut all communication with Cherry Blossom staff.

After Cochran told the KMBBC board of the festival’s request, he met in the hallway with Carswell to discuss the matter before they both returned to the meeting.

When Cochran explained the agreement with Bailey that she leave for a while, she said “OK,” but Carswell later told reporters she did not formally agree to vacate her office.

Carswell maintains that Bailey and Cochran reached an agreement without her imput and without discussion with the KMBBC board.

A house divided

The Pink House deed held by the Urban Development Authority shows the house is intended to be used as a headquarters for both organizations — or revert back to county control.

Macon-Bibb County Commissioner Bert Bivins called a special session Oct. 31 to discuss the rift between the organizations that was a growing concern for commissioners.

Bert Bivins

The county threatened to cut funding for the organizations if the differences could not be resolved and if KMBBC failed to issue a plan of action to deal with litter complaints.

In that meeting, Commissioner Elaine Lucas aired concerns about the mayor’s staff showing up unannounced at the Oct. 19 meeting, including Finance Director Julie Moore, whose daughter works for the Cherry Blossom Festival, and the mayor’s spokesman, Chris Floore, who serves on the festival board.

Carswell was upset when festival staffers showed up at that Oct. 19 meeting where the KMBBC board was to deal with its internal issues.

During the three-hour Oct. 31 meeting, commissioners learned that KMBBC was operating without bylaws, the set of rules that an organization adopts for governing its meetings and affairs.

“It’s almost impossible to move in a proper direction without them,” Cochran told commissioners.

He has since told The Telegraph that establishing bylaws is a priority of his remaining term as KMBBC board chairman.

Virgil Watkins Woody Marshall wmarshall@macon.com

Commissioner Virgil Watkins also pointed out that Carswell serves at the pleasure of the board and should not have been working around the chairman and executive board with the discovery committee.

Carswell maintained that there was no official vote taken asking for the resignations.

“I know it’s confusing,” she told Watkins.

“No, it’s not confusing. It’s just wrong,” Watkins said.

Commissioner Joe Allen also raised concerns about the overlapping of board members on both organizations — namely Cochran, who is the KMBBC representative on the Cherry Blossom Festival board, Bragg and Robinson.

Although the meeting ended with Commissioner Larry Schlesinger urging both organizations to “make peace in the house,” it has not happened.

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.

‘It’s just gotten out of hand’

Lucas and Allen recently met with Carswell, who had returned to her Pink House office after being out on a medical leave that immediately followed the turbulent Oct. 19 meeting.

Cherry Blossom Festival staffer Collin Holder was called into Carswell’s office with the commissioners, which drew the ire of Bailey and Moore, the festival CEO, who were both in the house.

“Because of the animosity between all of them, it’s really tough,” Allen said after the meeting. “They’re in a tough situation anyway when you have that many personalities in there trying to work this out.”

The meeting became boisterous, he said, when Moore and Bailey came into the closed door meeting.

Elaine Lucas

“They just were so surprised that we came down there,” Lucas said. “They were just running around like chickens with their heads cut off.”

Lucas reassured Carswell that she had every right to be in that office, no matter what the festival leadership said.

Bailey took issue with the way that meeting was handled and Lucas’ message to Carswell.

“Stacy went down there, rightfully so, because they don’t have the right to call one of our employees behind closed doors,” said Bailey, who had just arrived at the Pink House as Moore was going into Carswell’s office.

Bailey asked if he could help and learned that the commissioners were asking Holder for a list of festival board members. (Lucas had asked if the board’s makeup mirrored the diversity of the community during the Oct. 31 called meeting.)

“The most shocking thing to me when I was in the room, Elaine gave Pam the right to ignore the executive committee’s decision to have Pam leave the Pink House,” Bailey said. “I felt like I needed to get out of there.”

20170224 Education Together Telegraph WM 006
Don Bailey Woody Marshall wmarshall@macon.com

Bailey still stands by his original statement that KMBBC must deal with its personnel issues before the two organizations can continue to do business under one roof.

Lucas said of the dispute: “It’s just gotten out of hand. There are some people who think they own more than they do.”

She said both organizations must “get together or we’ll look at de-funding both of them.”

In the interim, Reichert has asked Oliver and Bragg to stay on the board, and both of them have agreed.

Floore, Reichert’s spokesman, said the mayor felt that with everything going on, experienced leadership was necessary to solve the issues.

Although Allen feels duplication on boards is problematic because “you can’t serve two masters,” Bragg disagrees.

Joe Allen
Joe Allen Beau Cabell bcabell@macon.com

She sees a role for herself on both organizations that have very different missions.

“Good, bad or indifferent, changes need to be made,” Bragg said of the tensions.

As KMBBC treasurer-elect, she said she has questioned some of Carswell’s expenditures in the past, such as $81 for 1,000 business cards.

Carswell “snapped” in response, telling Bragg: “I buy local,” Bragg said.

Carswell said she didn’t snap at Bragg.

Bragg also took issue with the discovery committee report, which she maintained was riddled with inaccuracies.

That document also led to Bailey’s request for Carswell to leave, since he felt it maligned festival staff and board members.

Bragg said Carswell “took the reputation of people she knew and cared for and put us in harm’s way.”

“It hurt all of us because we thought we were a good, solid group,” she said.

The mayor and commissioners also have expressed concerns about the in-fighting interfering with the organizations’ missions.

Community complaints about the litter problem prompted the administration to request an action plan for the beautification commission and take a look at how the $110,000 allocated in the fiscal 2018 budget will be spent.

Current financial reports examined by The Telegraph show the majority of public funding is spent on salaries, benefits, travel to Keep Georgia Beautiful and Keep America Beautiful conferences, and dues to organizations.

On Oct. 31, Carswell submitted to commissioners a summation of her work, which detailed hundreds of visits to schools, public service campaigns and dozens of community cleanups.

Since she has come on board, the volunteer base has more than doubled to over 1,600 people, according to a Keep Georgia Beautiful document.

KMBBC board member Martha Carter, who has known Carswell for decades, was instrumental in her getting the job.

“I still think she’s done a good job, and undoubtedly people at the national organization and Keep Georgia Beautiful feel she’s done a good job,” said Carter, noting the local organization’s awards during Carswell’s leadership. “Pam is a hard worker, and she has been recognized for the work she does.”

Carter, who also has been involved with the Cherry Blossom Festival in years past, thinks Carswell has been treated unfairly by the festival.

“When a group of people are jumping on one person, it has not been fair,” Carter said. “Until somebody proves to me that Pam has done something inappropriate, I will stand by her side.”

Carswell said: “I’ve been a successful, professional woman, and I’m being attacked.”

She said KMBBC and the festival are two separate organizations in one building.

“That is the extent of the overlap in the two entities’ work environments,” she texted in response to a Telegraph inquiry. “As to why any employee of CBF was terminated or resigned, I have no role in any of CBF’s personnel decisions.”

Carswell harkened back to Schlesinger’s recommendation that the groups put their differences aside and work together, a concept she embraced at the conclusion of the three-hour meeting.

“As for KMBBC, I will continue working honestly and openly to grow and improve KMBBC’s reach in our community,” she said.

Information from The Telegraph archives was used in this report.

Liz Fabian: 478-744-4303, @liz_lines