Committees of the Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission moved today to begin tightening financial procedures in the aftermath of Arkansas Times reporting about numerous questionable expenses at Little Rock National Airport, chiefly by airport director Ron Mathieu, but some involving expenses related to commissioners. Leslie Newell Peacock reports:
Ths commission’s personnel committee adopted policy changes that would require the executive director to submit all travel expense records to the Commission before reimbursement. The policy would also require Commission approval of all trips outside the continental United States.
At a later meeting, of the finance committee, Commissioner Jim Dailey requested that the Commission be provided a list of conference travel anticipated for the year and suggested it be made a separate line item.
The policy changes will go to the full commission when it meets Tuesday. Still unaddressed is Mathieu's current ability to spend $50,000 on a single purchase at his discretion, without commission approval. This policy is to be reviewed later.
The policies will also require the director to include his travel as part of his monthly report to the Commission. He is to assign spending limits for employees issued airport credit cards, and the finance committee will review credit card statements every month. Expenses for spouses or family members, such as meals or airline tickets, will not be paid for by the airport. The airport will not pay for alcohol or fees for more than two bags.
Airport attorney Carolyn Witherspoon also drafted a Freedom of Information Act policy that would require that counsel review all documents requested under the law “to ensure compliance with State statute and determine if any of the information is exempt from disclosure under the statute.” This policy will not be met with favor by FOI Act defenders. It would mean that public records requested under FOI could not be released until counsel had reviewed them. This could create many problems depending on a lawyer's schedule. The FOI Act doesn't anticipate such an obstacle.
Under the state FOI law, the custodian — the administrator who has control of the records, not an agency's lawyer — is to release the requested records when the public asks to see them. If the records are in active use or in storage, the custodian has up to three working days to release them. Delaying release by putting the records in active use — handing them over to counsel — wouldn't be viewed kindly by the press or any member of the public seeking them.
In between committee meetings, Commissioner Tom Schueck complained to this reporter that the Times had “gone too far” in its reporting earlier this week that his company had provided a plane for commissioners and staff several times for the cost of fuel, $26,861. Schueck said the report made him look bad, as if he were benefitting from the arrangement. He said it cost him $53,779 to make the plane available ($80,650 before the fuel reimbursement). The article merely reported the arrangement on use of the plane — for cost of fuel only — but raised the question of whether scheduled airline flights would have been less expensive. In one case, the airport said the difference in cost was nominal, but similar analysis wasn't provided for all flights.
Schueck said the five flights were made by the Terminal Task Force to new airports or those with planned expansions to study construction methods, financing and terminal layout, in advance of the Little Rock airport’s expansion that begins next year. He said using the plane saved the airport seven days of travel, room rent and food.
The flights were to Harrisburg, Penn., and Manchester, N.H. (one trip); Boise, Idaho; Raleigh-Durham and Fort Myers, Fla. (one trip), San Jose and Las Vegas (one trip); Madison, Wis., and Indianapolis (one trip), for a total of 28.8 hours of flying time.