by Max Brantley
The Arkansas Community Organizations, a grassroots group, has called on the city of Little Rock not to spend $200,000 in city taxpayer money on the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. The money is in the 2011 budget, as in years past, but the budget was held up unexpectedly at the last meeting because of questions about mass transit spending.
Director Kenneth Richardson asked at the last board meeting that the city receive assurances that the chamber money would not be spent on lobbying and that it get an accounting of expenditures on economic development activities. To date, the Chamber has refused to provide an accounting that proves the money doesn't support political activities. It releases only a budget with general categorical spending — salaries, travels, etc. — but refuses to provide any specifics. It won't even name the employees subsidized by city money, one step necessary to know whether the city is subsidizing chamber employees with duties that include chamber political activities.
I have asked City Manager Bruce Moore and Mayor Mark Stodola to obtain this information since the city contract with the chamber says the Freedom of Information Act applies. The Chamber has not responded so far. (For that matter, neither has the mayor, but Moore said he has requested the information.) I'll report next week if such basic information on city spending is viewed by the chamber as taxpayers' business and, if not, whether city officials think that is a satisfactory response. So far, Stodola has been willing to take the chamber's word, without supporting documents, a standard that doesn't apply to other city expenditures.
ACO says the chamber money should be redirected towards "meeting the basic needs of Little Rock citizens." It said police, fire, code enforcement, transit street and basic services should be the city's first priority. The city is in a budget pinch, with some 200 open positions ranging from trash collectors to park maintenance crew.
The ACO letter to city directors and the mayor:
December 10, 2010
Mayor Mark Stodola
Little Rock City Board of Directors
500 W. Markham
Little Rock, AR 72201
Dear Mayor Stodola and City Directors:
We are writing to urge you not to approve funding for the Chamber of Commerce in this year’s budget. The money should be redirected towards meeting the basic needs of Little Rock citizens.
Many of us have had positive experiences in working with the Chamber on common issues such as school millages, welfare to work programs and other projects. While we disagree with many of the Chamber of Commerce’s positions (especially the recent statement that the Little Rock School District is a wasted investment), our concerns are not about the Chamber’s legislative and political agenda, but about fairness, accountability to the taxpayers and the pressing needs of our city.
Some members of our organization have also had experience with city contracts. We believe that it is important for organizations or companies that contract with the city to report on how they are using city funds. Taxpayers have the right to know that their money is being put to good use. Apparently, no reports are available to the public on how the Chamber of Commerce is spending the taxpayer dollars it receives.
The Chamber has taken strong positions on a number of issues such as public schools, health care reform and financial reform. In addition to a robust legislative agenda, the Chamber also contributes to candidates. How are citizens to know if a firewall exists between the Chamber’s legislative and political activities on the one hand and the expenditure of city funds on “economic development activities” on the other hand if there is no detailed report on how those funds are used?
Many of you have received campaign contributions from the Chamber’s political action committee. You are now set to approve funding for this organization with virtually no strings attached. Have you considered how this might appear to the public?
At the budget hearings and in the paper we have been told by city officials that Little Rock municipal government has to trim back because there is not adequate revenue to cover expenses. Many critical positions in the delivery of city services are being left vacant to balance the budget. Shouldn’t police, fire, code enforcement, transit, streets and other basic services be our first priorities?
Please redirect the $200,000 for the Chamber towards meeting the basic service needs of Little Rock residents.