Behind on a $7.5 million goal and short on time before a donor-attracting August grand opening, the foundation supporting arts and education programs at the City Springs Performing Arts Center is preparing to hire some big guns of Atlanta fundraising.

The Sandy Springs Foundation’s move toward a $72,000 contract with the high-profile Coxe Curry & Associates was discussed at a May 9 board meeting that revealed some tensions with the city and chafing over state public meetings and records laws. Foundation leaders said they’d sought legal advice about possibly operating privately – the lawyers said no — and only revealed the contract amount and delayed a vote after City Manager John McDonough pressed for details and warned they could be violating a public notice law.

Emily Hutmacher, executive director of the Sandy Springs Foundation. (Special)

Emily Hutmacher, the foundation’s recently hired first executive director, is working to quickly to sharpen the organization’s focus so it can fulfill a complex and often confusing mission. Right now, the foundation isn’t yet fully set up to do even the simplest public fundraising, such as naming bricks that will be installed at a City Springs fountain.

“A lot of things have to be resolved and clarified” in the foundation’s mission and purpose, Hutmacher said at the May 9 meeting, both internally and for the public, and very quickly. Hutmacher was brought on three months ago, just six months before the PAC’s grand opening.

The foundation has already ditched a plan for a large gala that was to be part of that grand opening, and which Hutmacher had objected to as overly ambitious for a small group on short notice. Now she is attempting to whip up a strategic plan, a document that many organizations spend a year or more creating, in a matter of weeks, with a first draft expected by late June.

While moving with speed, Hutmacher is also trying to work with deliberation. “If we rush out to market before we’re ready…we’re not going to be successful,” she said.

The need for a strategic plan has been clear in public and internal confusion about the foundation’s role. An independent nonprofit, the foundation has a board appointed by the mayor and has relied on city help with start-up costs. Its mission is to raise funds for City Springs arts and education programs and such related matters as naming rights.

Concerns were highlighted at a March board meeting where foundation board chair Ken Byers and several other members expressed surprise that a major purpose of the group is to raise money to subsidize the main PAC programming, not just issue grants to local arts organizations. The overall fundraising at that time was only about $800,000, of which $650,000 was already committed. No significant increase in donations have come since then, city Finance Director Karen Ellis said, though board member Reed Haggard said a “Mayor and City Council” nameplate will go on a theater box after pledges from the current holders of those offices came through.

Emily Hutmacher, executive director of the Sandy Springs Foundation, discusses the concept of a strategic plan at the May 9 board meeting at City Hall. (John Ruch)

Fundraising push

To help with that fundraising, Byers and Hutmacher want to hire Coxe Curry, an Atlanta fundraising firm whose current clients, according to its website, include the Georgia Aquarium, the Grady Health System Foundation, the Bobby Jones Golf Course Foundation and many other major institutions.

Hutmacher is the foundation’s only employee, and she said there is essentially no way she can raise $7.5 million single-handedly. Dr. Brett Jacobsen, head of Mount Vernon Presbyterian School, was among the board members who said they had worked with Coxe Curry and strongly endorsed their abilities. A 12-month contract for $72,000 – roughly 1 percent of the fundraising goal – is a bargain, they said.

However, even that basic info came out only after resistance to Byers and Hutmacher’s request for the board to allow them to sign the just-announced contract without the members’ review of its details. When McDonough, the city manager, asked the contract’s budget, Byers warned him that revealing it would make it a public record and asked whether that was alright.

Sandy Springs City Manager John McDonough

“Yes,” McDonough said with a tone of surprise. “[It’s] a large budget. I want to know what it is.”

McDonough also noted that the contract was not on the meeting’s published agenda and any action might thus be in violation of Open Meeting Law notification requirements. Due to that concern and other board members’ interest in personally reviewing the contract, the board agreed to delay action until a special called meeting within several days.

Open meetings, open records

The Open Meetings Law and Open Records Act were themselves topics of discussion at the board meeting, as Byers revealed the foundation had sought an outside law firm’s opinion on whether those state laws applied to the nonprofit. Of particular concern was media coverage of the foundation. The Reporter is the only media that has attended the foundation’s meetings.

The attorneys’ opinion was that the laws indeed apply to the foundation, Byers said, which is why the Reporter “is here keeping tabs on it.” The foundation has various qualities that make such laws apply, including its heavy funding from public money and its mayoral-appointed board that includes such government officials as McDonough and City Councilmember John Paulson.

Byers said he lives his own life with the thought of how his personal and business conduct would look on the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, so he has no problem with press coverage. However, he said, there is some concern that the board discusses “sensitive” and “just a little awkward” information at times. He said the board had considered changing the foundation’s organization so it could operate privately, but that “I’m not going to hide behind those kinds of laws. I want to do it the right way.”

Ken Byers, chair of the Sandy Springs Foundation board. (Special)

However, Byers and Hutmacher also suggested that they could avoid some public discussion through certain type of smaller private meetings in “different venues,” as Hutmacher put it.

The use of outside lawyers was also an act of independence from the city – which has provided a staff attorney at the board meetings and for other help — that appeared to take McDonough by surprise. City officials have previously said they expect the foundation to become self-sustaining relatively quickly; for now, it is still being provided office space within City Hall, among other assistance. Byers said he believed the foundation was basically cut off from city support on May 7, while McDonough said that is not so.

“We may have talked about getting on with certain things…[but] not that we were changing attorneys on May 7,” McDonough said. Byers said he would discuss the matter “offline” with McDonough.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.