Pawhuska city councilors voted last week to discontinue a discussion of the future of the Constantine Theater — the council and numerous interested residents had been talking for about an hour and a half on the evening of Dec. 18 — to see if some kind of consensus might be achieved about resolving differences.
Councilor Mark Buchanan led the move toward a vote to discontinue the discussion for the time being, and the council voted unanimously, 5-0, in favor of that suggestion.
Both defenders and critics of the current Constantine board and its presiding officer, Garrett Hartness, voiced their opinions during the city council’s special meeting.
Local lawyer Jesse Worten III, who said he represents clients who are concerned about the Constantine, emphasized he thinks the historic theater should be run in the interest of the community as a whole, and not as Hartness’s “own little fiefdom.”
“I don’t think the city of Pawhuska is getting its bang for its buck from the Constantine,” Worten said at the beginning of his remarks. He later added: “It’s a money maker for the city,”
Worten said he sent open records request letters to Hartness in October 2018 and again in March 2019, and has received no response.
“I have just been ignored,” he said, explaining that he could take the issue to court and would be entitled to recover his fees from the city as part of such an action, but he is trying to avoid moving in that direction.
Worten said he could produce witnesses in court who would testify that Hartness discussed the open records request at a Constantine board meeting, and that he said the theater couldn’t hand over the requested documents without confirming that it charges different prices to different groups.
Hartness told the council and residents that he had talked with the city manager’s office, and had been told that City Attorney John Heskett had talked to Worten about the open records request, and that Worten was OK with an audit that was being done. Hartness also said that Worten’s open records request had been received at a busy time.
Heskett denied Dec. 18 that he ever had any conversation with Worten about the open records request and about an audit.
“I never had that conversation,” Heskett said. The city did have audits performed on the Constantine’s financial records for 2017 and 2018, and the reports of those audits did not indicate any financial irregularities.
Worten said in the Dec. 18 meeting that even if Hartness had been “superbusy” when Worten’s records request arrived, there must have been some point in the following 14-15 month period when he was not busy and could have responded.
Brian Jeffers, a member of the Constantine board, defended Hartness’s record as leader of the board and manager of the theater by talking about the efforts that Hartness has made to offer programming and opportunities for children. He mentioned an annual Santa Claus program, featuring the distribution of free gifts for children.
Jeffers also mentioned that Hartness had spearheaded the use of local children to act in the annual fall play at the Constantine that is offered to school audiences, as well as to the general public.
Jeffers said the Constantine’s financial reserve has grown during Hartness’s leadership from about $20,000 to some $65,000. Those funds would be important if the theater were to experience an infrastructure need, such as the necessity of repairing or replacing heat-and-air equipment, he said.
Cheryl Nelson, who identified herself as the newest theater board member, also defended Hartness as someone who has been especially kind to children during his leadership at the Constantine.
There was also discussion Dec. 18 about the legally required size of the Constantine board; regarding the number of members it takes to achieve a quorum and have a legal meeting; and regarding city government approval of board members.
The number of board members that Heskett explained would constitute a quorum under the terms of the trust agreement would be 10; however, Hartness said the number required for a quorum had been changed, in practice, to six members before he ever became chairman.
“I’m following what has been done previously,” Hartness said. It became apparent during the discussion that there seemed to be differences between theater bylaws that the theater board was consulting, and the formal theater trust document that Heskett had examined.
Another source of disagreement that came to light during the course of the city council’s Dec. 18 meeting was the practice, on the part of the theater board, of trying to close down the facility as much as possible during the coldest and hottest times of the year to save money.
The council has not set a date for further discussion of the status of the Constantine, but participants in the Dec. 18 meeting indicated they think there’s more to talk about.