Columns » Max Brantley

Club Little Rock

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As in 2009, I'll spend most of my remaining space in 2010 griping about the city of Little Rock's annual year-end ritual of giving a $200,000 taxpayer subsidy to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber exists to enhance members' profits and that often means fighting legislation in the greater public interest. Fine — as long as they pay their own way.

As last year, I'm fighting the city over its refusal to hold the chamber to its contract, which pledges city money won't support political lobbying and which also pledges adherence to the Freedom of Information Act.

The pledge to be non-political is meaningless, even if nominally honored. As an astute blog reader noted, money is fungible. Simply put, any money the city gives the chamber — even if spent only on some as-yet unspecific economic development work — merely frees up other chamber money for the fight to hold down wages and benefits for working people. (And to issue the occasional attack on Little Rock public schools.)

The FOI promise has been meaningless, too. The chamber, KGB-like, won't even identify which employees are paid with city money. What's to hide?

The Arkansas Community Organizations hit the main point with a letter to city directors last week. It called for spending the chamber allotment to meet the basic needs of citizens. Asked the letter: "Shouldn't police, fire, code enforcement, transit, streets and other basic services be our first priorities?" Yes, and accountability.

Little Rock government shouldn't spend a cent it can't specifically explain. The Chamber of Commerce's dole is but one example of where the city falls short. Gene Pfeifer, long-time critic of accountability in the city's investment in the Clinton Presidential Center and Park, has tried for years to determine the specifics underlying the city's payment of $206,000 annually for its roughly half share of the 30-acre park's maintenance. The Clinton Foundation submits the figure, the city pays. Almost $8,000 a week covers a lot of mowing and hedge clipping. Would a detailed summary be too much to ask, Pfeifer wonders.

City government is larded with stuff like this. It's easy to hide in a $184 million budget. No telling how many special-interest offenses might lurk there — such as when the city paid to promote a feature on City Director Stacy Hurst in a local society magazine. Hurst's little vanity expenditure was nothing, however, compared with the public dollars that have flowed into City Director Doris Wright's neighborhood magazine and the unaudited thousands of dollars that she's directed to a neighborhood association she favors. Was there a bid process? An audit? A report on association revenues? Not that I've found so far.

And then there's Little Rock National Airport and the fine dining, first-class travel and other perks that would befit a family-owned business, maybe, but not a public agency.

I'm not ready to call anybody a crook (though charging a city agency $700 for a personal meal sounds an awful lot like theft to me). But these practices all reek of the clubbiness that has always characterized city government. In Club Little Rock, the downtown business crowd controls the majority of the city board. Club Little Rock members get the sweet appointments. Everybody in the club treats other club members the way they would wish to be treated themselves. You know — the golden rule. Those that have the gold rule. And they don't eat hamburger when a steak's on offer.

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