Columns » Max Brantley

Of, by and for



Public officials are not always dishonest and self-interested. Sometimes, they are simply afraid to tell people the truth. I think we saw examples last week.

News reporting belatedly disclosed that the University of Central Arkansas Board of Trustees had decided in a closed meeting in May to speed up a deferred compensation plan approved for UCA President Lu Hardin in 2005.

The plan gave Hardin $60,000 a year if he stayed five years. Not quite three years into the deal, rumblings began that Hardin might be hired away. That wouldn't be surprising. He's been a marketing dynamo at UCA. Growth in enrollment and test scores of students prove it.

The fear of losing Hardin prompted the Board to draft a new contract for him. It was to include a paid sabbatical and other so-far-unrevealed perks. The Board wasn't ready to approve the whole package in May. Led by trustee Rush Harding, a split board decided “as a gesture of good faith,” according to Harding, to pay Hardin's deferred comp early. But that $300,000 payment was never announced and specifically ratified in public, probably because the Board froze faculty pay and raised tuition the same day. It likely feared disclosing Hardin's deal in that climate.

I think the law required a specific vote on the $300,000 payout. The action also raised questions about compliance with the statutory cap on college president pay — with bonus, 125 percent of Hardin's $253,000 statutory maximum. For the year, he will be paid $553,000.

The Board believes it acted legally by approving a general motion on everything discussed in private. It also argues that since payment of the bonus came from a discretionary fund it created from campus book and food service profits, the source wasn't public money. I disagree. The board plans to seek an attorney general's opinion. It also plans to reveal expenditures under another newly discovered special rule — the Board gave its chairman the right to cut checks up to $5,000 without even Board approval, all exempt from public disclosure.

Imagine if the Little Rock School Board set up an auxiliary fund from vending machine profits to be spent secretly at its discretion and with a $5,000 check-writing authority held solely by the School Board president.

Trustee Harding says now that he wishes the Board had acted on Hardin's bonus in public. He's confident that full disclosure of Board expenses will meet public approval and says future expenditures will be public. He's also confident that Hardin's value to UCA far exceeds the bonus.

Little Rock City Manager Bruce Moore could say much the same about his unilateral decision, recently disclosed by the Democrat-Gazette, to waive building permit and street closing fees for the new River Market Tower condo. It's a defensible benefit for a project that contributes mightily to the city's long goal of downtown redevelopment.

But a waiver of city ordinances should be a matter for public vote by the City Board. For whatever reason, City Hall feared it. It likely would have drawn some criticism, just as Hardin's bonus would have drawn criticism. But it's likely, too, that each proposal would have met general approval if explained and defended up front.

Instead, secret deal-making eroded faith in a government of the people. It smacked of government of and by a few — for insiders. The long-term damage is not inconsequential.

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