by Max Brantley
Short but sweet at the final meeting of the task force looking into the finances of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. A bound report on the LRCVB scandal was issued .
Chairman John Plegge said he has already received calls from those who claim the Task Force investigation was something of a whitewash (as you'll remember, the last Task Force meeting two weeks ago found Plegge discounting most of the issues that got the ball rolling in the direction of an investigation in the first place, including allegations of conflict of interest in the rental of West LR office space, and the purchase of a car for outgoing LRCVB head Barry Travis). To those critics, Plegge suggested they get together a group of six and interview the same people the Task Force did, and look at the same
"Let them see if they can come up with anything different," Plegge said. "Because I don't think they will."
The bound report said the committee did conclude, however, that while the visitors bureau and the Advertising and Promotion Commission had made "significant, positive contributions," that the commission lacked by-laws, long-range planning and ethics rules. It said the visitors bureau suffered from management problems and had engaged in unacceptable practices. It made a number of recomendations about rules and practices, such as the need for training of commission members.
The handling of the Curran Hall visitors center issue was a "public relations disaster," the committee concluded. The committee said it might deter industry people from serving on the commission if they couldn't do business with the commission, as a restaurant owner and a hotel owner had done. It said full disclosure and rotation of business might be a better solution. The committee didn't form a firm conclusion on lease of office space from a commission member, but suggested there should be something more than opinion for assessing a WLR office's effectiveness. The purchase of car for a previous bureau director was "wrong and should not have happened." The committee recommended a written policy on automobiles for employees.
The committee also recommended that three of the four industry slots on the commission go to restaurant operators.
Finally, the committee offered some criticism of the press, namely the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, whose articles engendered the study. It noted the newspaper had given little coverage to the commission for the 18 months preceding the investigative stories and that some major changes were underway at the agency before the stories began. The committee faulted the newspaper's comparisons of Little Rock with Houston for "naivete" and also said, "some of the editorial staff's work was considered a bit over the top, somewhat unsubstantiated and certainly not balanced. Overall, however, the media properly reported on problems and issues that needed correction and attention and work to be done. This work is being done and significant, positive changes are underway."
UPDATE: The D-G story today re-emphasizes its earlier reporting on the bidding and FOI laws that have been ignored. The interesting element is to come -- a response from Mayor Mark Stodola and the City Board Will the City Board make major changes at LRCVB, or accept the finding that "significant, positive changes are underway."
Video of Plegge's remarks.