by Max Brantley
Little Rock National Airport announced this afternoon that it had cancelled its controversial advertising contract with Little Rock Christian Academy and gotten its $40,000 back.
The Arkansas Times broke the news of the contract last week. Airport Executive Director Ron Mathieu, whose son attends Little Rock Christian, steered the airport into the deal. When he was asked about a jump in marketing expenses in May on account of the $40,000 paid to Little Rock Christian, he told airport commissioners it was a result of a variety of new efforts, including on TV, to drive traffic to the airport website. He did not mention the Little Rock Christian expense, the first and only one by the airport on a football field or with any school.
Events moved quickly. The Airport Commission met in executive session Tuesday and announced afterward that Mathieu had made an error in judgment and that the commission would undertake a review of past expenses as well as review procedures that give Mathieu discretion over expenses up to $50,000. He apologized for the expenditure. He had earlier defended it by saying he'd deferred the decision to subordinates, who defended it as a good investment at the equivalent of $4,000 a year for a 7-by-10 logo on the football field at the private school. However, e-mail uncovered by the Times indicated the $40,000 payment followed a e-mails between the school and Mathieu about a contribution to a fund drive to install new turf at the field.
Airport Chairman Bobby East had said the airport would seek to get the money back. Mathieu wrote his letter Tuesday, the day of the meeting.
The airport today released a letter from Mathieu to the school asking for the money back and a letter from the school, plus a photocopy of the check repaying the money. The letter from Gary Arnold, head of Little Rock Christian, dated the next day, was warmly complimentary of the airport. He said it was an "honor" to promote the airport for only three months and closed, "God bless your work for the best interests of Little Rock and our surrounding communities."
An airport news release said, "The airport will apply the full value of the check against the original transaction." I'm not sure exactly what that means — perhaps to underscore that the airport gets its money back after a season's worth of free advertising at LRCA.
Photocopies of the letters follow.