Proposed hire irks council members [The High Point Enterprise, N.C. :: ]
(High Point Enterprise (NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) April 05--HIGH POINT -- Some City Council members say they were kept in the dark about a proposal to pay an outside consultant $120,000 a year to do a job that some view as unnecessary.
The city would pay J-B-E Inc. to oversee redevelopment efforts in urban areas by serving as a liaison between businesses, the city and other groups, according to a written draft agreement for services.
J-B-E Inc. is headed by Joanna Easter, who has worked in a variety of furniture showroom and property management capacities in High Point for 30 years. The proposal, which states that her work is scheduled to begin April 14, is still in draft form and would have to be approved by the council to go into effect, but it's already caused considerable controversy.
Councilman Jay Wagner said he doesn't support Easter's hiring because he believes The City Project -- the city-funded nonprofit that is charged with revitalization efforts -- already is handling the task of redeveloping the inner city.
Wagner said the draft was assembled without the participation and knowledge of the full council.
"I don't know who among us really knows about it. I was made aware of it, but not until after it had moved beyond just the concept phase into written form," he said. "There's been a fair amount of that going on down there, where discussions are going on among smaller groups of council and I'm hearing secondhand that there's five votes to do this and five votes to do that, and I haven't heard anything about it and have not been part of the discussion at all."
Councilman Jeff Golden said he didn't know a draft agreement with Easter had been drawn up. He said he believes the full council should have been kept in the loop as Easter's hiring was being discussed.
"I don't know who's driving this," Golden said. "I'm not privy to any of the discussions. I have heard about the $120,000, but all I hear is rumor. To have received nothing about it -- I've got a problem with that."
Councilman Foster Douglas said the draft agreement should not have been drawn up without direction from a majority of the council. He said he believes Councilwoman Becky Smothers is pushing for Easter's hiring.
"I have not been kept in the loop. I don't know what you're talking about. I haven't seen (the draft)," Douglas said. "In my opinion, this is a continuation of what Becky does. She isolates council members she disagrees with and gives the manager direction on her own, which clearly needs to come from the City Council as a body."
$10,000 A MONTH?
Easter, a former executive with Showplace, would be hired as an independent contractor of the city and be paid $10,000 a month -- $120,000 a year -- under the draft agreement, which has a term of two years.
She would provide services that "relate to the collaboration on and the development of new business opportunities, renovation and rehabilitation of existing and historic High Point landmarks, creation of new public venues and a city wide calendar of events schedule. All of those services are provided with the goal of improving consumer traffic and increasing employment opportunities within many of the distinctive districts of the City," the proposal stated.
She would create a "new marketing overlay map" with information about businesses in the furniture market district and other parts of the core city, according to the draft. She would work as a liaison between the business community, the city, the High Point Chamber of Commerce and the High Point Economic Development Corp., the document stated.
Easter would help develop a downtown retail and design district, along with a website, and work with other organizations "to maximize the brand of the High Point Market in order to benefit local businesses and create a destination for new investment, tourism and job creation," the proposal states.
She would be expected to work an average of 30 hours a week, according to the draft.
Easter said Friday the proposal represents only things that have been discussed, and nothing has been decided. She said the April 14 start date in the proposal is "not going to happen."
"That document that you're holding does not represent anything. The hours aren't right. The money is probably not right," she said. "My role would be to get some energy going in the downtown area and spread that as far as I can. I hope to be able to do that with the city."
Emails released by the city show Easter advised city leaders on what she would like to have included in the terms of the agreement.
Easter wrote to Smothers on March 27:
"need to have a paragraph inserted that materials and supplies will be invoiced to the city on a monthly basis. need to recognize that the website will be constructed and paid for using city personnel or firm of the city's choice. need to go ahead and plan on an assistant for me."
This didn't sit well with Councilman Jim Davis, who emailed his colleagues later that day:
"What's going to be the real cost for this, looks to be more than city project budget now with an assistant, I'll be honest, I'm starting to feel non supportive ..."
Easter responded by email with a "concession" that she would "pay my assistant out of my fees."
'JEALOUSY AND PERSONAL ATTACKS'
Wagner said the hiring of Easter would undermine The City Project and its revitalization efforts.
"As of right now, I can't support the contract. I don't know what it gets us that we don't already have," he said. "This proposal to pay her $120,000 I don't think is fair to volunteers working hard in town to get things done."
In a March 27 email, Wagner wrote that Easter's hiring wouldn't enhance the city's redevelopment efforts:
"Hiring Joanna or anyone to produce a website, create a community events calendar, and to try to get businesses to work together is mere window-dressing compared to the type of transformative projects other cities have done ..."
Mayor Bernita Sims said she believes the council needs to sort out how it wants The City Project to be structured before it decides whether to hire Easter.
"I did have concerns about how the process unfolded. I saw the contract after it had been drafted," she said.
Smothers denied that there was any type of conspiracy to cut out council members from the discussion about Easter's recruitment.
"I don't think anybody kept anybody out of anything. I think it was a matter of evolving conversation, and it just happened," Smothers said. "There are people that have known about it that have leadership roles on this council. One is the mayor and the other is mayor pro tem."
She said she sees Easter's role as an expansion of what The City Project does and is not meant to diminish it.
"I don't understand the jealousy and personal attacks that apparently are designed to deflect attention from something that could be truly transformative," Smothers said. "I don't think it's fair to accuse other members of council who have interest in the core city of having some type of negative agenda."
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