Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock today resigned her $80,000 job as executive director of a public-private consortium hoping to build a Harlem Children's Zone-type cradle-to-job program for inner city Little Rock known as Central Little Rock Promise Neighborhood.
Elliott — and, unfortunately, the program itself — has been beset by questions raised about her hiring for the job with UALR, a state agency, as a paying agent. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette first reported that a 1999 state law prohibits the hiring of legislators by state agencies and universities are included in that definition. An alternate plan to have the city of Little Rock pay Elliott was withdrawn, apparently because of the city's reluctance to become enmeshed in the controversy. Her situation has been complicated by Democrat-Gazette reports on small tax liens outstanding against Elliott. The Board of the Central Arkansas Library System, another partner, also expressed reluctance to stand in as paying agent because of the controversy that had arisen, library director Bobby Roberts said. The fear among many now is that the program itself could be permanently damaged.
UPDATE: See the jump for a news release from UALR Chancellor Joel Anderson on her departure. He said he hoped it wouldn't impede progress of the project. There's also a prepared statement from Elliott and from UAMS Chancellor Dan Rahn.
Elliott will focus, instead, on trying to hold her seat in the state Senate. She faces a challenge from Rep. Fred Allen. She said the controversy undoubtedly would have a negative impact on her race. It's impossible to ignore the politics in the situation. Her base of supporters undoubtedly will see her predicament as a sign of powerful interests aligned against her.
Dickson Flake, an influential businessman and member of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, is finance chair for Fred Allen. He's also a prime mover of legislation that created the Little Rock Technology Park Authority, which is getting $22 million in city tax money thanks to a tax increase pushed in a clandestinely-waged campaign administered by the same Chamber of Commerce that now holds a statutory seat on the Authority Board, along with Flake. Elliott has challenged the Authority about neighborhood interests as it considers a site there for the technology park, a decision that could dislocate hundreds of people. Elliott has said, if re-elected, she'd push for legislation requiring financial disclosure by Authority members; an impact study for people affected by such projects, and legal representation for people in such affected neighborhoods to match the taxpayer-financed legal help the Authority Board enjoys.
Elliott's opponent Allen also is supported by charter school backers Jim Walton of Bentonville, the Walmart heir and Arvest chief, and Jackson T. Stephens Jr. of Little Rock, heir to a portion of the Stephens Inc., fortune.
Of such support, Elliott said: "It's not just coincidence. If I am re-elected I'll be chair of the Education Committee. Powerful interests in this state do not want to see me in the legislature and definitely do not want to see me chair of the Education Committee." She said she'd been told in the last legislative session that money would "roll down" to insure that she didn't return to the legislature.
Her choice to run the Promise Neighborhood was announced with extensive press coverage almost eight months ago, but questions about whether she could be hired with UALR cutting checks weren't raised until a week ago.
It's too late now, but several of the supporters of the Promise Neighborhood project say the problem could have been easily avoided by establishing a structure in which a 501C3 nonprofit handled money paid to Elliott or that the Promise Neighborhood itself was set up as an independent nonprofit. As it is, UALR functions as her employer, even if she's director of a consortium that includes the Little Rock School District, UAMS, Children's Hospital, UALR, the Central Arkansas Library System, the Little Rock Prep Academy charter school and several private organizatons, including a church and charities.
The law is the law, if the consortium is held out to be a state agency. It's close enough to make a contrary argument difficult as a public relations matter. But history shows the law wasn't passed with situations such as this in mind. Dozens have served in the legislature over the years despite university employment, but it wasn't until 1999 that the law prevented legislators from taking university or other state jobs after joining the legisalture. The law in question was passed in response to term-limited state legislators setting up post-legislative jobs. One powerful legislator created a new agency that promptly hired him after he left the legislature. Others went to work lobbying for public agencies. A public-private consortium funded primarily with federal money wasn't among the provocations.
"Ignorance is no excuse," Elliott said. But she notes that if she and others involved were ignorant of the law, so were all those who saw the events play out so publicly before TV cameras in mid-September.
Before issuing her afternoon news release, Elliott said she was hopeful something could be worked out someday that would allow her to do the job. "I really want to do this work," she said. But she said, for now, her clear choice was to remain in the state legislature. "I'm going to do that because I'm not going to walk away from my name being sullied. That would be a mistake. I've worked so hard to have a good reputation all these years. I can't just sit back and let people drum me out of the legislature."
She said evidence of politics at work is the effort to prevent her hiring even by legal means through other agencies.
Elliott started work on a temporary basis for UALR in July and then was formally hired in September.
Bobby Roberts said members of the consortium would have to recommit to the project for it to work. It is nearing a deadline to again seek a federal implementation grant.
The loss here is less about Joyce Elliott than it is about the neighborhood and its children should the project founder.
"We gotta do something," Roberts said. "These children need a lot of help. It's expensive. It's time consuming. The failure rate is going to be high. But if we get everybody working together, it could make a difference."
UAMS, for example, says it still hopes to establish a neighborhood clinic on 12th Street and a children's library is already under construction on the corridor. But the program is at a critical point in the grants process and the setback, plus any attendant loss of goodwill, could be damaging. UALR officials likewise remain committed to the project. But what exactly happens now? An open question at this moment.
JOEL ANDERSON NEWS RELEASE
Joyce Elliott today announced her resignation as Executive Director of the Central Little Rock Promise Neighborhood, a project of an eight-member consortium that includes UALR, the Little Rock School District, Little Rock Preparatory Academy, the Central Arkansas Library System, the City of Little Rock, UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, and New Futures for Youth.
UALR will work with our partners in the Central Little Rock Promise Neighborhood consortium to determine the next steps for this initiative to build a better future for our children and for our city.
As fiscal agent for the disbursement and accounting of the $430,000 planning grant from the U.S. Department of Education, UALR was unaware that Senator Elliott’s hiring by the consortium was in conflict with Arkansas Code Annotated 21-1-402. When we learned about the statute recently, we began working with the partners to be in compliance with the law.
I am quite certain that no one involved, including all members of the consortium, deliberately and intentionally acted contrary to the prohibition in the state code. No one would have knowingly taken the risks involved, and we regret that any actions on our part may deter the positive progress this initiative has made since 2010.
I wish to thank Senator Joyce Elliott for the leadership she has provided to the Central Little Rock Promise Neighborhood initiative. She led with a passion that reflects her life-long commitment to education and the health and welfare of children and families.
Joel E. Anderson, Chancellor
University of Arkansas at Little Rock
JOYCE ELLIOTT NEWS RELEASE
State Senator Joyce Elliott announced today that she will step down from her role as Executive Director of the Central Little Rock Promise Neighborhood, effective immediately. The coalition, a public and private partnership, is dedicated to advancing education and childhood development and helping improve lives in traditionally underserved neighborhoods of Little Rock.
“It is with a very heavy heart that I have chosen to voluntarily resign my position with the Promise Neighborhood organization,” Senator Joyce Elliott stated. “I was honored to lead this extraordinary partnership, and my belief in the positive impact it will have on thousands of young people’s lives has never wavered. While I will remain steadfast in my support of this organization’s work, I feel resigning is the best decision for everyone involved.”
“Throughout my legislative career, I have insisted on being accountable and have held myself to ethical standards of which I am proud. Although some questions about the application of the law to public-private partnerships certainly remain unanswered, I feel I must lead by example, and if I err, I do so on the side of good government and personal accountability. Education and helping to build better lives have been the passion to which I have dedicated my life, and these are causes far more important than any one individual,” Elliott concluded.
STATEMENT FROM UAMS CHANCELLOR DAN RAHN
“I was sorry to learn that Joyce Elliott resigned as executive director of the Central Little Rock Promise Neighborhood. Her dedication to the Promise Neighborhood both as a resident and former educator made her the perfect fit for the job. UAMS remains committed to supporting this neighborhood and improving the health and health care of its residents. We will be meeting with other partners to determine what our next steps will be.”
— Dr. Dan Rahn, UAMS Chancellor