In a rare move, Athens City Council on Monday evening rejected Mayor Steve Patterson's request to expedite the hiring process for a new director of Arts, Parks and Recreation.
Three members voted against a motion to suspend the rules and adopt an ordinance authorizing Patterson to hire a new director at 34% of the pay grade. In council's Sept. 6 meeting, Service Safety Director Andy Stone told council that is equal to $68,000 per year.
The new hire would fill a vacancy left when previous Arts, Parks and Recreation Director Terri Moore resigned in August.
Ohio Revised Code Section 731.17 requires all proposed ordinances to be read at three separate meetings. It also allows a legislative body, such as a city council, to forego three readings if three-fourths of its members agree to do so.
Last week, Council Member Jeffery Risner told The Athens NEWS he was opposed to suspending the rules on the hiring of the APR director.
“One thing I absolutely do not want to do is rush this through — I want to do all the readings,” Risner said.
Before its July recess, Athens City Council suspended the rules to pass at least 22 out of 86 ordinances, or 25% of all ordinances introduced. The figure may be higher; no minutes are posted on the city's website for several meetings, including five of six meetings held since returning in August. Recently, Athens City Council suspended the readings on the first reading of an ordinance to spend $91,000 on mandatory racial equity training for all city employees, The Athens NEWS previously reported.
During Monday's meeting, Risner disagreed with the motion to suspend the rules, saying it was a standard hiring process and not an emergency, and that he would vote no.
“I don’t usually go against the mayor’s wishes, I go along with the idea of the administration and what it does,'' Risner said. “ I just don't see the haste, I don't see the public emergency, I don't see how it fits our standards of suspending the rules."
Council Member Sam Crowl, who put forward the motion to suspend the rules, said it would allow the normal function of the APR department to continue.
Council members Arian Smedley and Ben Ziff joined Risner in voting no. The vote to suspend the rules received only four of the six votes needed to pass. In addition to Crowl, supporting votes came from council members Sarah Grace, Micah McCarey and Christine Fahl.
Smedley said after the meeting she wasn’t even aware the Council was going to try and attempt to suspend the rules.
“I know it's super important to get someone in that position but I didn't hear anything elaborating on why there was a need for the emergency push,” Smedley said.
Crowl said he supported Monday’s motion to suspend the rules because of ongoing problems in the department he wants to see rectified by new leadership.
“I sort of feel like this is not an emergency but I feel getting a director in as soon as possible really helps, hopefully bringing that department back to a place of solvency,” Crowl said. “The more we hesitate, the more the problems possibly compound.”
During the meeting, Smedley asked for additional information about the candidate in advance of the third reading.
Patterson said he would be happy to get Smedley a copy of the candidate’s resume, but also asked City Council to move to suspend the reading “so that the individual doesn’t have to continue to wait for the hiring process to move forward.”
Although some council members did not know the candidate's name during the meeting, Patterson told The Athens NEWS afterward that the job has been offered to Katherine Ann Jordan, a visiting professor in Ohio University's department of Recreation, Sport Pedagogy, and Consumer Sciences. The department is part of the Patton College of Education. Patterson's wife, Connie, is associate dean for academic engagement and outreach for the college.
Smedley said while the process of not revealing the name seems to be standard practice — Moore also was hired anonymously — she hopes more about candidates can be shared with the City Council in the future.
“I would still question whether or not that's something we want to consider doing,” Smedley said. “If it’s coming to the point where it's coming to Council and they're asking us to decide a pay grade on somebody we know nothing about.”
Patterson said he was under the impression City Council knew who the candidate was, and that “there’s no secret,” and that “no one is hiding the football.”
Council members also have raised questions about the hiring process itself. In the Sept. 6 meeting when the ordinance was introduced, Crowl — head of the Finance and Personnel Committee — said the administration had "done its due diligence in arranging search committee" and decided on a "very qualified candidate" that the "current APR staff support."
When asked if the search committee had sought input from the Arts Parks and Recreation Advisory Board, though, Service Safety Director Andy Stone said, "No."
"This is the mayor’s appointment," Stone told the council during that meeting. "We appreciate all the hard work the recreation advisory board does, however in the instances of departments, the mayor takes full responsibility for running the city. He’s the one who has to take blame when somebody fails. If that’s the case, he’s going to take responsibility for hiring and selection."
McCarey asked how the administration knew that the candidate had the support of APR staff if none of them were consulted. Crowl responded, "I was curious about that question. When I inquired for more information from the city administration, that’s what I was told."
"So we don't know really know, exactly," Smedley said.
"I have a note about a couple of important staff members who were in support," Crowl replied. Asked Tuesday for clarification, Crowl said he heard about APR staff support for Jordan "secondhand."
Vanessa Scott, operations specialist and customer service representative for APR and one of the five names listed as APR staff on the city’s website, told The Athens NEWS Tuesday that she was not consulted for the hiring — adding that role is usually left to upper management of city administration.
“They don't normally (consult us) when any of our directors are hired,” Scott said.
The Athens NEWS also spoke to three other employees at the Athens Recreation Center who said nobody had spoke to them about the hiring process.
Smedley acknowledged the mayor ultimately has the final say in hiring, but also said it was important to get public input on candidates, especially from the Arts, Parks and Rec Advisory Board, considering the sudden exit of Moore and complications with the Athens City Pool.
“I would have liked to have seen more involvement from (The APR Advisory Board) because of the way our previous director left the administration and the impact on the community as a whole,” Smedley said. “To be able to include the community a little bit more would have garnered a little more trust and confidence in the new person.”
Alan Swank, chair of the APR board and candidate for City Council, declined to comment, saying he could not issue a statement from the board because representatives from the city did not attend a meeting where a discussion of the hiring process was on the agenda.
After the meeting, when asked if the APR Advisory Board could have been consulted in the process, Patterson emphasized he and the interview team (comprising him, Stone, Human Resources Director Ron Lucas and Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle) had the sole decision in the process to hire administrative positions.
“There’s no other director position that I have for the city where anybody else weighs in besides my interview team,” Patterson said. “I can literally go on the street and say, you know, 'Cole Behrens, how would you like to be the next director of Arts, Parks and Recreation?' And if you said yes, I could hire you on the spot.”
Concerns about arts experience
Another issue raised was Jordan's experience — or rather, lack of it in a major part of the position. In the Sept. 6 meeting, Ziff asked about the candidate's qualifications, particularly regarding the arts.
"Arts is a weakness," Stone admitted. "The candidate has experience in recreation management and parks management, advanced degrees in those fields, but the arts is probably one location when we talked with her that she understood will be a place she will have to put extra focus, extra emphasis to learn how to best support the arts community and the goals of the city administration and council in advancing arts in the city."
Jordan earned a bachelor's degree in recreation management from Appalachian State University, a master's in recreation and leisure studies from the University of Georgia and a doctorate in parks, recreation, and tourism management from Clemson University, as well as a postdoctoral fellowship in recreation, parks, and tourism at Indiana University – Bloomington. According to her LinkedIn profile, she worked for three years with North Carolina Outward Bound: one year as assistant logistics manager and two as logistics manager. According to her Ohio University profile, Jordan has also been a horseback riding trail guide in Arizona, a programming intern at a nature center in Georgia, and a ski technician in North Carolina.
She joined Ohio University as a visiting professor in 2019, making $61,000 per year, according to OU spokesperson Carly Leatherwood. Jordan was appointed to the APR advisory board in 2020.
The job listing states that candidates should have “five years experience in the recreation field with supervisory responsibilities and course work or experience in the business administration or related field.” The listing, however, also states the city “may consider any other equivalent combination of training and experience which provides the required knowledge, skills and abilities.”
After Monday's meeting, Ziff again expressed concern that the candidate lacked experience in the arts, calling it "frustrating."
“I’ve personally had some reservations about the hiring process of this individual,” Ziff said. “As someone who came from the arts, I went to OU for theater, I was a theater electrician, I’ve been in the arts my whole life, and to me it’s sort of a letdown to the arts, as per usual, sort of shuffled down the road."
Lucas said the city received 42 applications for the position from across the country, including Washington, New York and Kansas. The listing was posted across all major job listing services and across city channels like the website, he said.
The list was reduced to two or three serious applicants that were interviewed by the panel, Patterson said. He said he had never met Jordan before she applied for the job.
Patterson said Jordan stood out to him because of her academic background and time at Clemson, which he said is one of the leading outdoor recreation programs in the country.
“That was important to me, she has certainly supervised a large amount of students and graduate students,” Patterson said.
Patterson also added that in the one-on-one interview, he found Jordan to be a public-facing individual willing to engage with the public and expand the department.
“She certainly struck me as someone who has that level of charisma that is important in such a role,” Patterson said.
Chelsa Morahan, chair of the Athens Municipal Arts Commission, said she understands the mayor makes decisions on hiring and firing, but added “it would have been nice to have a little bit more say.”
She, like Ziff, also said she was concerned the arts could be neglected, but said that is a perennial problem.
“There's always going to be concerns about that based on the past experiences with the directors of the arts parks and rec, however my understanding is it is very difficult to hire someone who encompasses all of the arts parks and recs,” Morahan said.
She however, said she and the AMAC was prepared to show the new director the ropes.
“I’m looking forward to meeting the new person and welcoming them into the arts community and hope they will be receptive to our experience and our guidance,” Morahan said.
“I am not super concerned until I meet the person and learn what their vision is, and what their willingness to learn will be.”