Fayetteville A&P chief on administrative leave

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 138 views 

FAYETTEVILLE — Marilyn Heifner, executive director of the Fayetteville Advertising & Promotion Commission, was put on administrative leave with pay and benefits Monday (Feb. 13) while the city’s prosecutor investigates a claim that she violated the Freedom of Information Act.

The complaint was made by Northwest Arkansas Times reporter Joel Walsh and pertained to information he believed Heifner held from him while he was researching a story about the commission’s plans to lease or buy the Old Post Office building on the Fayetteville Square.

The commission had extended an agreement to lease the 100-year-old landmark for $5,000 per month from owner Ron Bumpass with the option to purchase it for $1 million at the end of a year. But Heifner and at least one other commission member had not been able to reach Bumpass to get him to sign it.

The commission’s effort to acquire the vacant building was seen as a win-win for both Bumpass and the city. Parts of the building were to be used by the displaced Fayetteville Underground artists collective. The commission also discussed leasing it for events such as wedding receptions and corporate meetings left without a home while the nearby Cosmopolitan Hotel is being renovated.

The deal seemed all but done, with the commission to take possession of the building on Feb. 1.

Then appeared a counter offer from Bumpass, dated Jan. 25. The amended agreement upped the monthly lease to $7,500, raised the purchase price to $1.5 million and limited the commission’s use and renovations of the building.

Walsh’s complaint says he asked Heifner about the counter offer, disclosable under the Freedom of Information Act, but she denied any knowledge of it. She then said she found it in a folder on her desk, according to a Feb. 8 Times story by Walsh.

At least one commissioner, Bob Davis, said Monday he was not made aware of Bumpass’ counter offer until he read about it in the newspaper.

“I don’t understand what happened,” Davis said of the counter offer. “I’m curious about what’s happened here.”

The commission decides how to dole out money collected from taxes levied on hotel, motel and restaurant (HMR) receipts. The amount collected is about $2 million a year, Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan, a commissioner, said at a regularly scheduled commission meeting Monday. Last month alone, the commission collected more than $205,000 in taxes, up 15% from January 2011.

During Monday’s discussion of the real estate deal with Bumpass, the commission voted to order an appraisal and building inspection at a cost of no more than $2,500 before going further.

With Davis’ previous sentiments still hanging in the air, he suggested the commission meet in executive session. About 10 minutes later, a member of Heifner’s staff returned to the meeting room to retrieve Heifner’s coat and scarf.

When the commission re-adjourned some 40 minutes later, Jordan made a motion that Heifner — a former Fayetteville Mayor — be placed on administrative leave pending an investigation alleging that she violated the FOIA. Heifner will continue to draw on her $84,000 salary and receive full benefits.

“We’re not sure that the Freedom of Information Act was violated, but we feel like the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act was violated,” Davis said after the meeting.

Fayetteville Prosecuting Attorney Casey Jones said Walsh filed a formal complaint with his office last week and that an investigation is ongoing. Jones said he also spoke with Times Editor Greg Harton and had three to four more people to interview. He did not anticipate any action before next week.

Walsh did not cover and did not attend Monday’s meeting.