Friends of Hemming Park recasts leadership; is it enough to preserve contract with city?

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  • | 12:00 p.m. August 2, 2016
Bill Prescott
Bill Prescott
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For Friends of Hemming Park to have a chance for a future, it had to make changes from its past.

The nonprofit that has operated the iconic Downtown venue for almost two years shifted its leadership over the weekend.

The moves come after a consistent barrage of scrutiny from City Council over how the organization has spent part of its $1 million city-funded contract and whether the nonprofit should continue running the park.

Gone is Vince Cavin, the only CEO the group has had.

Cavin submitted his resignation to the Friends board over the weekend, days after a special council committee continued to critically analyze the past and future of the park.

Bill Prescott, the organization’s treasurer and a board member, has taken over as interim CEO.

But those weren’t the only changes announced Monday.

The group has added Michelle Barth and Suzanne Jenkins in voluntary roles to help with fundraising and strategic planning.

The changes for the group were needed, said one council member.

But to another, they simply weren’t enough.

Council members also will hear plans from the city’s Parks, Recreation & Community Services Department, which was asked to show what it could do in Hemming Park with a similar budget.

Cavin in a prepared statement said he hoped his departure can alleviate ongoing distractions related to the nonprofit’s past decisions and push the conversation forward about what’s best for the park.

“I think this was something Vince realized needed to be done,” said Wayne Wood, Friends board president.

Wood said it was clear council members had lost confidence in Cavin.

A council auditor’s report released last month showed dozens of meals for staff members, close to $25,000 spent on lunchtime musicians and a trip to Orlando to purchase office furniture, expenses that have led to criticism by council members.

The latest council talks came a week ago during a special committee meeting on the park’s future.

Prescott said it became apparent after that meeting that Cavin continuing to be CEO was going to put the organization in jeopardy of not receiving needed funding to finish out the fiscal year or securing future funding.

Council is weighing whether to give the group $150,000 to finish the fiscal year and will debate a $250,000 operating budget for the nonprofit in 2016-17.

Wood said after the latest special committee meeting, he and Cavin had a long talk and came to a mutual decision about Cavin’s resignation.

Despite what Wood describes as some financial “missteps,” he praised Cavin’s work leading the nonprofit in its infancy, raising more than $400,000 in private dollars and overseeing events that brought more than 700,000 people to Hemming Park.

Cavin resigned Saturday during a Friends board meeting that was not publicly noticed, a requirement for the group that must adhere to the state’s Sunshine Law for public entities.

Wood said Monday it was his understanding the meeting did not have to be noticed because it was an executive session of the board that dealt with an employment issue.

However, Holland & Knight attorney Jennifer Mansfield said, “Employment matters, like any other matters that come before a public board are to be open” unless the board can cite a specific statutory exemption. Wood was unable to do so.

The violation can be cured with the board hosting a properly noticed meeting, something Prescott said the board will do if it’s needed.

He said he first needs to talk with Wood, other board members and legal counsel before any decision is made.

Cavin will receive two weeks’ severance pay that is being raised by the board to ensure it doesn’t come from the Friends’ budget.

Council member Greg Anderson, chair of the special Hemming committee, said Monday he viewed the decision as a “step in the right direction” for the future of the group.

However, for the group’s most vocal critic, it was a step — just not enough of one.

“I don’t think it’s a step worth $150,000,” said council Vice President John Crescimbeni, referring to the funding to get Friends through the rest of the year.

The nonprofit took other steps, too.

Barth, former Feeding Northeast Florida chief strategy officer, has joined the group to serve as an adviser for fundraising and development.

Wood calls her someone who is “bright and knowledgeable” about the private and public sector and is welcome in the community.

She initially was sought to come aboard in a paid role to develop a fundraising plan that’s been seen as a critical component of the Friends’ long-term success.

With budget issues, though, Wood said she has agreed to work on a voluntary basis for the time being.

Jenkins joins Friends as director of strategic planning. Prescott said she approached Wood over the weekend about joining and is a valued addition who can review budgets and capital planning.

Jenkins’ role also is voluntary.

There were no other changes to the nonprofit’s staff.

The hope, said both Wood and Prescott, is the changes demonstrate to city officials their feedback has been heard and implemented to ensure the long-term success of the park under Friends’ guidance.

After feedback from the council auditor, the group now has three bank accounts: One each for events, operating and a restricted-use account.

In the past, public and private dollars were commingled in one account.

Council members are in the process of placing restrictions so city dollars can only be used on operating expenses.

Further changes to the fiscal side of Friends’ work include a scaled-back “bare bones” budget that Prescott said will get the group through October.

That would ensure that $250,000 in funding set forth in Mayor Lenny Curry’s budget is in place, should council approve the money for next year.

That will be determined over the coming weeks as council reviews that budget while the special committee continues to meet.

The city Parks, Recreation and Community Development Department has submitted a plan showing what it could do with Friends’ budget, which comes to about $1,800 a day. It includes dedicated park events that tie into citywide attractions like the annual monster truck show and Jacksonville Jaguars home games.

The park presentation will be part of the next Hemming committee scheduled for 11 a.m. Aug. 10.

By then, though, the Friends could already have some good news about their immediate future.

The council’s Neighborhoods, Community Investments & Services Committee on Monday unanimously approved the $150,000 in short-term funding.

The council Finance committee will discuss the issue Wednesday and it’s possible the full council could make a decision next Tuesday, a day before the next Hemming meeting.

After weeks of criticism and pushback from council, the move would show at least a short-term commitment for Friends’ future at a time of heavy fire.

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