Your Little Rock tax money at work — in secret | Arkansas Blog

Your Little Rock tax money at work — in secret

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KING JAY: If Chamber boss Jay Chesshir isnt calling the shots on Tech Park, appearances suggest otherwise.
  • KING JAY: If Chamber boss Jay Chesshir isn't calling the shots on Tech Park, appearances suggest otherwise.
I was curious Tuesday when the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce announced a committee to work with neighbors targeted for the chamber's Technology Park, to be financed with city money, but otherwise administered and controlled by the chamber under a law the chamber wrote.

It was curious that the news release came out just in time for a Little Rock City Board meeting at which the Board shot down City Director Ken Richardson's proposal to prohibit use of eminent domain to take residences for the taxpayer-financed office building that is being hailed as a technology magnet for private businesses.

So where did this announcement come from? How did the seven-member authority agree on its creation? How did the seven-member authority decide that Chamber boss Jay Chesshir and C.J. Duvall would be the authority reps on a committee that will be majority controlled by the chamber, UAMS and UALR and which will give the neighborhood no meaningful influence in the site selection?

So I filed an FOI request for any emails, notes and related documents of Authority members and Chamber employees working on the Tech Park relative to site selection and neighborhood concerns.

This morning, I was allowed to see what Chesshir had produced in response to that request. It was a thin sheaf of stuff that provided virtually no insight to where this PR stunt came from. There was an e-mail from Mary Good, nominally chair of the Tech Park Authority in response to a draft of the news release sent to Good by Chessir. It said, "This announcement looks good to me. Mary."

A few other e-mails indicate Chesshir and Gary Newton of the Chamber staff exchanged draft copies of the PR blast.

There was one e-mail to a neighborhood group inviting a member's participation.

I asked Chesshir a series of questions but have received no response. Accountability apparently doesn't include Chesshir doing interviews with critics.

Was the news release sent under Good's name wholly a product of Chesshir — as most of the Tech Park work has been, when developer Dickson Flake isn't calling the shots? Did they have a phone conversation about it? Who decided the membership of the new committee? Was it Good? Or was it Chesshir selecting himself? Do other authority members really not have a single e-mail or document relevant to these actions or neighborhood concerns about the site? If not, why not? Was the authority consulted on this PR feint?

Some of the answers seem self-evident. This has NEVER been a public project. It's a private developer pipedream financed with public money and they are deeply resentful of public scrutiny, beginning with the secret expenditures that helped pass the tax from which the Chamber got a $22 million public gratuity. Public accountability will be grudging, limited and insufficient. We haven't seen the last of this sort of thing nor have you seen the last of additional contributions of public money to the bottomless pot.

UPDATE: I got a terse response from Chesshir. It is not responsive to specific questions, including about who wrote the news release, who picked the committee members and whether other board members were consulted about the statement and appointments before it was issued. His response follows:

This was discussed in our May meeting. I specifically requested Chancellor Rahn and Anderson recommendations be reviewed for response and that we move forward establishing the working committee with representatives of the neighborhood, sponsors and resource providers. Chairman Good, with no opposition from Board members, agreed to do so. Thanks.

PS — No motion was made or adopted at the meeting Chesshir mentions to establish this committee.

PPS — Another terse response:

Never said there was a motion - after the entities already mentioned agreed to serve on this working committee, I wrote the release for her approval.

The records don't include documents reflecting contact with all those named to the committee, except for one neighborhood group, but all the work could have been done by phone.

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