Columns » Warwick Sabin

Something for nothing

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Unless the voters in Arkansas House District 46 take a stand this November, they are going to be stuck with another representative who unapologetically profits as much as possible from the public treasury. For the last few years, their state House delegate has been Marvin Parks, who takes the long way to Little Rock in order to break the threshold to qualify for mileage reimbursement. Term limits prevent him from running for re-election, so he is challenging U.S. Rep. Vic Snyder for a congressional seat, and paying himself a generous salary from his campaign fund. John Smith is the Republican candidate who hopes to succeed Parks, and he has already proved more skillful at finding creative ways to enrich himself at taxpayer expense. Who knows what he may be able to achieve if he ends up in the state Capitol, where feeding at the public trough is elevated to an art form. Colorful language aside, Smith's case is completely indefensible. He holds the title of executive vice president at the University of Central Arkansas, where he is drawing a $157,956 paycheck this year to do nothing. Originally this year-long break was called a "sabbatical," implying that he would use the year to render some kind of service to UCA. It took the student newspaper there to point out that under university guidelines, sabbaticals are only available to tenured faculty members who have been on campus for at least six years. As an administrator, Smith does not qualify. But even further, anyone who has some familiarity with academic culture knows that sabbaticals are hard to obtain, and when you get one, you are expected to produce something serious, like a book or research project. Needless to say, Smith is not required to show anything for his time off, although his defenders are quick to point out that he has conducted some meetings. Faced with the roadblock of UCA's own rules, Smith's contract was revised to replace "sabbatical" with "period of paid leave." But here again, we have a problem. The UCA staff handbook, which governs Smith's administrative position, says that staff members are not eligible for a paid leave of absence. So a public employee is being paid a top-tier salary by Arkansas standards to do nothing - except run for public office. Some early observers concluded that the whole arrangement was cooked up by UCA to plant its own dedicated advocate in the House. This kind of advanced lobbying is not so unimaginable as our state universities compete with each other for limited appropriations. UCA officials deny hatching a grand plan, and some deeper exploration reveals a smaller conspiracy. Apparently Smith and UCA president Lu Hardin were not working well together, so the UCA trustees decided to give Smith a "sabbatical" to get him away from Hardin. All of the principals involved say that Smith announced his intention to run for office after he secured the leave time. At this point, it doesn't matter whether Smith accepted a sabbatical based on false premises or a paid leave to fix a little problem of office politics. UCA is not a private business and shouldn't be allocating $157,956 so frivolously. The standard full-time undergraduate tuition there is $2,527 a semester, which means that Smith's walking-around money would fund the studies of 62 students this fall. That fact has more resonance in light of recent tuition increases of 6.4 percent for undergraduates this year. To his credit, Smith returned a call seeking comment, and we politely discussed our divergent opinions on this issue. He said that if he thought he was doing something inappropriate or illegal, he wouldn't do it. And he contends that he is using his time off to prepare to teach. However, he admitted that his situation is unique and probably deserving of the scrutiny it is receiving. For appearances sake alone he would be better served by declining the enormous amount of money he is receiving under questionable circumstances. How can he be trusted with a position of public authority if he is willing to so blatantly enrich himself? He certainly cannot run as a fiscal conservative. Smith's luxury hiatus is due to expire at the end of 2004, and he is supposed to begin a new position as director of a UCA graduate studies program in January, at an annual salary of $125,000. If he gets elected to the legislature, he says he will be able to teach classes and fulfill his duties at the Capitol. That stands in contrast to Hardin, who says that when he was serving as a state senator while at Arkansas Tech, he took an unpaid leave from his college responsibilities. Smith has shown poor judgment. As a public servant he already has failed us. Hopefully the residents of District 46 will recognize that and elect the other man.

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