Multifest board urged to resign
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The newly appointed board president for Multifest plans to have the annual festival this summer despite an embezzlement scandal that led to the event's organizer and his wife resigning.
But a prominent community organizer and longtime festival attendee believes the entire board should step down to restore the community's faith.
The Rev. Matthew Watts, a local pastor and community organizer on Charleston's West Side, thinks the public's trust in the West Virginia Multicultural Festival has been irreparably damaged because of the embezzlement case.
"I really do commend the Multifest committee on what they have done over the past 20-plus years," Watts said. "The social interaction, recreation and entertainment opportunities they have brought to the greater Kanawha Valley is nothing short of amazing.
"But having said that, it appears Multifest has not been properly managed," he added. "The public's trust in the board's leadership ability has come into question, and I do not see how it can be restored."
The Rev. Roy Terry, the newly appointed Multifest board president, does not think the organization's board must step down to restore public confidence.
The Multifest board has opted instead to restructure the accounting system to ensure that future financial shenanigans will not occur, Terry said.
All financial officers with the board will be bonded, and the organization will hire an outside agency to conduct an independent audit annually, Terry said. Bonding the officers will guarantee more financial accountability.
Specialized companies sell bonds that guarantee officials' performance.
The process is similar to insurance. If money comes up missing, then the bonding agency pays those funds to the agency.
"We're hoping these safeguards will address any concerns that our sponsors have," Terry said.
Multifest founder and former board president Stephen Starks recently resigned from his position in the wake of his wife pleading guilty to embezzling more than $300,000 from the organization's coffers between 2005 and 2010.
Deborah Starks pleaded guilty in federal court earlier this month. She had resigned from her position as treasurer sometime last year, Terry said.
The board members, who took Debbie Starks at her word when financial reports were given, did not know the financial misconduct had occurred, he said.
"We had people in positions of trust, and when we were given financial reports, we believed them to be correct," Terry added.
Terry has been a Multifest board member about 10 years. However, his area of responsibility was security for the event.
To his knowledge the organization had never been independently audited.
"But I'm not 100 percent sure about that," Terry said.
Multifest board members will meet with sponsors to discuss the recent issues in the very near future, Terry said.
The Kanawha County Commission typically provides funding to the organization, as does the City of Charleston. Both Commission President Kent Carper and Mayor Danny Jones vowed to cut off funding if the Starkses would not sever all ties to the event.
Since Starks' resignation, Carper said he would listen to any funding requests from the event's board. The board members will have to prove to him that the newly installed financial controls will work.
"I would want to hear from them," Carper said.
However, Carper also said he trusts Watts' judgment and is not convinced that the board members should not step down.
"You can't just move the board's chairs around a little bit," Carper said. "There has to be complete proof that there is real change."
Jones also said he would be willing to talk to board members.
"If they have a presentation to make, we'll listen to it," Jones said.
However, both Jones and Carper said they were leery of providing money to the organization in the past because of the lack of a financial audit.
"We never really got the paperwork we wanted from the board in the past," Jones said.
Watts, who said he has attended Multifest just about year over its 22-year history, emphasized he is not interested in joining the organization's board.
He hopes the event can continue and considers it an important community attraction.
The event's value goes beyond recreation opportunities for community members and guests who sometimes come from many states away, Watts said.
Many nonprofit organizations, small vendors and faith-based groups set up booths to sell wares at the event, he said.
"Multifest needs to continue," Watts said. "But it needs to continue under the auspices of a reputable committee that can ensure there is proper oversight of funds.
"It is now time for another committee to come in and handle this type of event."