SECRET OPERATION: When the city starts paying $300,000 a year to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, new state law ensures taxpayers won't be able to inspect the files of city work generated by the money or specifics on how it was spent.
Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore
told me yesterday in response to a question that new state enabling legislation requirements on transparency would apply to his proposal to ship $300,000 a year in taxpayer money to subsidize the operation of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.
A new constitutional amendment cleared up a lawsuit finding that the city had illegally been sending $300,000 a year to a private corporation. The city board tonight will put on the agenda for next week's meeting a resumption of the payments to the chamber in the name of economic development. The money helps pay the salary of chamber executives for work they already do for its members, as well as essentially subsidize their political activities (opposing workers' rights legislation; working for the state takeover of the Little Rock School District, for example.)
So what about transparency? Can the public know how the money is spent? Can it see internal discussions between chamber and prospect and the city about sensitive subjects — worker protection laws, racial issues, crime, schools, tax abatements, city corporate welfare payments to the business? Do we want some of the businesses the chamber recruits? Does the chamber make political representations to which some in the public might object? Will documents be open for taxpayers who are paying salaries at the chamber?
Simple answer: NO.
City Manager Moore said the city would abide by new enabling legislation that specifically authorizes city payments of tax money to economic development service "contractors." The act provides a shield for most meaningful information and requires only limited reporting on activities, essentially a duplicate of past practice.
(b)(1) The following are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act of 1967, § 25-19-101 et seq., as related to economic development services:
(A) Files and materials that if disclosed would give advantage to the competitors or bidders; and
(B) Records maintained by an economic development service provider for a municipality or county related to any economic development project.
(2)(A) However, quarterly reports shall be provided to the governing body by parties to the economic development service contract and shall be available to the public.
(B) The reports shall include a statement of the specific items contained in the economic development service contract and articulation of compliance as to each of those items.
Got it? Chambers files of work done in the city's name are CLOSED.
We know from years of practice that chamber types believe disclosure of virtually any information is seen (by them) as giving advantage to competitors (even when there are none). The chamber's records are closed wholly, as relates to "any" project. I could give you a copy of past quarterly reports, but they reveal next to nothing beyond the number of contacts the chamber has made with unidentified people. As I showed yesterday, the "specific items" in the service contract are general in nature — $20,000 for "prospect hosting events," for example. Articulation of compliance presumably will be: "We spent it like we said we would."
Moore objects to my characterization of the city "quietly" renewing a bid process for this work, for which only the anti-worker chamber applied. It's customary just to do bids and then get the City Board to sign off, he said. That's true. But the legality of past payments on this contract remain under contest in a pending lawsuit. Many in the city don't like giving the chamber $300,000 in tax money every year, $100,000 of it specifically to help recruit jobs to white flight suburban cities whose freeway widening needs apparently are more important to the City Board than quality of downtown Little Rock life. Resuming the payments is more of a policy decision than a routine award of a service contract. Also, the arrangement apparently will remain the same sham for a chamber subsidy it always was. It will now be constitutional, however. This should have been discussed on the front end, not the back end when it is too late for meaningful debate.
But the chamber calls the shots in Little Rock. It has always been thus, thanks to the hammer of the three at-large votes on the 11-member board powered by white business establishment money.
Ward elections needed.