by Max Brantley
The Democrat-Gazette's underappreciated and hard-working Conway bureau reporter, Debra Hale-Shelton, had a fine story in this morning's paper.
Shenanigans concerning a stepped-up financial bonus for Lu Hardin, UCA's president.
It seems that the UCA Board of Trustees voted to speed up a $300,000 longevity bonus plan -- originally payable over five years -- to payable in less than three years. They just never bothered to tell anyone. No wonder. The big payout had some political downsides in a year when the UCA faculty isn't getting additional dough.
Here's where old-fashioned, value-free reporting has drawbacks. It would have been nice -- and it must have been tempting to the reporter -- to insert a number of "wink, winks"; "arch eyebrow here" or an interjection like "Right!"
As when trustee Rush Harding said the failure to vote on the matter in public was an oversight. As when it was said failure to include the action in minutes was innocent. As when Lu Hardin said he meant to mislead no one when he answered reporters' earlier questions about a pay raise in the negative. (See, he didn't get a pay raise, he got a "bonus." Wink. Wink. Nudge. Arch eyebrow.)
It's real simple. If a Board vote is required to pay Hardin this money, it should have been on the Board's agenda and a specific vote on the matter should have been taken in public session. It matters not if the bonus is drawn from private money (presumably a separate but related UCA nonprofit -- the story didn't say.) If the Board has control over expenditure of the money, it is effectively public money. If it is paid through UCA offices, even if only the cutting of the check and any deductions, it is public money.
UPDATE: This story is going to get worse before it gets better. Turns out a variety of reporters asked Hardin about this bonus for several weeks before he finally came clean this week. One of them was John Brummett. Unless I miss my guess, we'll hear more from him on the subject tomorrow.
Hardin clearly was disingenuous -- with good reason. He got a massive pay bump the same day the board raised tuition and froze faculty pay.
This sounds like:
1) A violation of the FOI law -- action taken in private that was not ratified in public.
2) An illegal exaction of taxpayer money. Hardin was paid $180,000 illegally if the action wasn't legally ratified in a public meeting. They can hold an open vote now, but they can't retroactively clean up an improper payment. Gene Sayre, where are you?
Many questions remain about the source of the money; who has authority for spending that money, if the source is the UCA Foundation, and what role publicly paid employees played in the handling of the money.
Also, who was responsible for stirring the rumor that Lu Hardin might be in line to head the UA System and thus might need an incentive to stick around. Surely it wouldn't have been Hardin himself.