Columns » Max Brantley

Little Rock's shadow government

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I exchanged several notes with Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola last week about his disappointment over Pulaski Tech's rejection of a proposal to move its culinary school downtown. He still thinks he had better cost estimates that proved the plan could work on available money. He insists he holds no ill will against Pulaski Tech as it moves toward a property tax election, but adds that he wants to know details first. Which is fair.

Inevitably, though, our conversation turned to the divide in Little Rock — the one between rich and poor and black and white. It's best illustrated by the city's shadow government, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Stodola says he can't understand my obsession with the topic. I can't understand why he can't understand.

When Stodola jetted off to Paris, it was Jay Chessir, CEO of the Chamber, who shared the publicly financed haute cuisine at Stodola's table.

When Little Rock passed a sales tax, it was a committee set up, financed and administered by Chessir and his employees that ran the show. They did so without disclosing their involvement on campaign papers and without the campaign committee reporting in-kind contributions from the chamber for its administrative support and Chessir's time.

The chamber wrote the law that set up the new technology park authority. Through that law, the chamber effectively controls the governing board, including a designated seat for Chessir. The sales tax the chamber puppet committee promoted provided $22 million to the technology authority. The tax passed, but was trounced in the neighborhood in which the Chessir-created, chamber-controlled and city-financed board intends to expropriate dozens of homes of lower-income minority citizens.

Chessir successfully fought disclosure of how the sales tax campaign money was spent. I'd like to know, for example, if they hired any neighborhood "consultants" to help with the campaign. Chessir has also successfully fought disclosing how the chamber spends the $200,000 in taxpayer money that Stodola insists on providing the agency for putative economic development work. It's a sham deal. It is a taxpayer subsidy to work the chamber was already doing. The city itself once did it with public employees whose work WAS transparent.

The chamber was in the thick of the effort to move the culinary school downtown from the southwest location. Working class stiffs in Southwest Little Rock, including a city director whose opinions had not been sought, weren't happy about the implied disrespect.

The chamber continues to support at-large election of city board members, a process that favors wealthy neighborhoods and depresses influence of the city's black/Latino majority. It likes the system so much, a chamber employee has worked to impose at-large elections on the Little Rock School Board, too. This fits with the chamber's unsuccessful effort six years ago to take over the School Board. Defeated at the polls, it has turned its attention to supporting the charter school movement (a movement littered with failure) and using its mailing list to trash the Little Rock School District. How this encourages economic development is beyond me.

The chamber was established to maximize members' profits, which means minimizing pay, benefits and access to the courts for members' employees and customers and the public at large. This is legal, of course, even laudable to some. I'd be less obsessed about it if my tax money wasn't paying for it. See now, mayor?

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