Black Expo changes to come after Summer Celebration

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Leaders of Indiana Black Expo Inc. will wait until after its annual Summer Celebration to announce any measures they might undertake to improve relations between employees and the organization’s CEO.

Black Expo’s signature event, which began on Thursday and runs through July 17, is the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the nation. It encompasses a huge variety of events, from free concerts to business seminars, which typically help push total attendance over 225,000.

But, in early June, Black Expo directors brought in an outside consultant following a letter to them in which employees voiced concerns about the leadership of president and CEO Tanya Bell, who has been at the helm of the organization since early 2008. The letter said “some staff members” witnessed Bell “changing figures in various financial documents.”

Seventeen employees out of a staff of about 20 signed the letter, complaining that Bell has created a hostile work environment that includes employees “being disrespected, disregarded and demeaned.” They called Bell “the perfect example of a bully” who “intimidates several staff members with overly aggressive, rude remarks.”

Reached by phone this week, Black Expo Board President John Thompson said the consultant is still performing due diligence, but he declined to elaborate.

“We’re going to get through Summer Celebration and, sometime during August, we’ll certainly be prepared to present … the community with an update,” he said. “Right now our focus is 100 percent on Summer Celebration.”

Even so, Thompson said he doesn’t expect “major changes.”

As president of Black Expo, Bell oversees Summer Celebration and Circle City Classic, which together generate roughly $40 million in spending for Indianapolis.

Employees who signed the letter to the directors include Perry Hines, chief operating officer; Colleen Heeter, vice president of development and advancement; and Elizabeth Hart, director of communications and public relations.

The letter said Bell “repeatedly changes her mind on various projects for which staff has invested considerable time and effort.” Staff members expressed “deep concern" about this year’s Summer Celebration. Last year's event saw a significant drop in attendance, the letter said.

The prepared statement issued by the staff said, “We collectively voiced our concerns to the board of directors, and an outside consultant has been brought to the table to assess the situation and provide assistance with employee relations. A process has been started and an action plan is being established to move forward.”

Bell has not responded to phone messages seeking comment about the situation. Questions were directed to Vernon Williams, a Black Expo board member handling media inquiries.

Despite the upheaval, he said the staff is “functioning on a highly professional level.”

“Right now everyone is functioning as one,” he said. “There’s no division that is impacting anything that is happening right now.”

Bell succeeded Joyce Rogers, who left for a position at Ivy Tech Community College in 2007. Bell, who received her undergraduate degree from Indiana State University and her law degree from the Indiana University School of Law, had been assistant general counsel at Community Health Network before taking the IBE job.


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