Live from the city board special meeting on the city's lately controversial convention and visitors bureau:
1) Mayor Dailey opened with prepared statement. He apologized and accepted a share of blame for "doubt" cast over A&P matters, including "errors and policy failings." He did defend "character of good people, such as Mary Beth Ringgold," though he reiterated that mistakes have been made.
2) Director Dean Kumpuris followed with a version of the case he presented -- with such little useful effect judging by newspaper commentary today -- to Democrat-Gazette editorialists. He's the city board's ex officio member of the A&P commission. He said re:
* Purchase of car for outgoing CVB director Barry Travis. "Errors of convenience" were made, he said. Director Joan Adcock wanted to know who has car allowances.
* The A&P budget vs. Houston, a much larger city -- a comparison in Democrat-Gazette articles and commentary that has caused much comment. He noted that, unlike other commissions around the country, LR's bureau has facilities to manage and a tax to collect. The visitor organization is only about 28 percent of the $12 million budget. The Houston visitors bureau is a membership organization, with dues. "It's a very different animal," he said. He contended that Little Rock actually spends less than comparable average cities and "leaner than it was four or five years ago." Director Michael Keck questioned travel and entertainment expenses to solicit business and whether there are now guidelines to decide when CVB money is used to entertain. Yes, Kumpuris said. Only three credit cards are authorized for CVB use, where a dozen or more were in use in years past. Employees now must use personal credit cards and submit a reimbursement form that lists where expenses where incurred, who the employee was with and the purpose. "It's a real cultural change," from what's been practiced in the past and, Kumpuris said, conformity is not yet 100 percent. He said further changes are expected -- an elimination of one bureau credit card, use of a travel agency for trips. Keck pressed on the need for more guidelines to curb "extravagant" entertainment expenses.
(Side note: drilling down into credit card minutia, as the directors are trying to do, has some usefulness. But, if they think it does much to address the general feeling that certain insiders have more clout than others and decide large issues without public knowledge until after the fact, I think they are kidding themselves. Director Adcock got at this a bit by pressing for the admission that there's no policy to guide how surplus that accumulates in reserve funds is used.)
* Kumpuris noted, in reference to unobligated money, that the travel editor of the Democrat-Gazette, Libby Smith (wife of executive editor Griffin Smith) had brought a group of travel writers to town and the CVB provided subsidies to that group. Kumpuris said this visit produced favorable articles in newspapers. (The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, of which the Ark. Times is a member, was thrown a cocktail party by the CVB when it brought more than 400 conventioners to town last summer.)
* The $500,000 spent to lure some 1,200 members of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity to a national convention here this year? No mention so far.
Apparently coming is some sort of do-right resolution that the board plans to adopt (involving some City Hall review of CVB practices). I'm going to have to break away to do some cooking, scintillating as this discussion is.
Added note: Good questions from Directors Wyrick and Fortson without good answers. Just how did A&P manage to enter a giant month-to-month contract for marketing services without taking bids? And how is it that the auditor has consistently found the agency in compliance with state laws on bidding?
Alibi time: At the request of directors, City Attorney Tom Carpenter confirms that city board has little direct authority over the operation except appointing commissioners. (This is technically speaking, of course. Here we are back to the symbiotic relationship by which City Hall and CVB have operated de facto, if not de jure.) Carpenter's remarks make it clear that today's session is primarily a response to angry letters to the editor.
I think I can predict that the letter writers will see this meeting as window dressing. They want heads to roll. Punishment exacted. Not promises to do better.
UPDATED: At the close of the meeting, an interesting wrinkle. Director Wyrick moved for an executive session to consider the continued service of existing members of the Advertising and Promotion Commission. The motion failed on a 4-4 tie, with Stewart, Adcock and Cazort voting to hold the session. Interesting, Kumpuris, who is a member of a commission accused of irregularities by Wyrick, voted on the motion rather than recusing. He voted against the session. (So did Mayor Dailey, also a commissioner, though he leaves the city board Jan. 1.) The other members of the board said they wanted the City Hall review process to go forward first.
Bottom line: This show session isn't going to get it. City Hall's review won't be viewed as independent. New rules and procedures won't be viewed as sufficent action by the harshest press and public critics.