The Arkansas Times started in late 2009 attempting to get a better accounting from the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce of how it spends public money — $200,000 from the city of Little rock and $25,000 from Central Arkansas Water — on a so-called services contract to work on economic development.
The Chamber refused to provide anything more than pro forma budgets of its economic development effort, which cost about $823,000 in 2009. The city's contract requires compliance with the Freedom of Information Act. It also says it is for "economic development purposes only." City officials have been given assurances that the money would not be spent for the chamber's political activities.
Late this year, we asked Mayor Mark Stodola and City Manager Bruce Moore for a simple piece of information — which employees of the chamber receive a portion of the salaries and benefits paid by public money? At last, we got an answer.
In a letter Dec. 16, Jay Chesshir, president and CEO of the chamber, said five of the chamber's 15 employees then directly devoted time to the city in 2009 and were compensated in part by public money. They were Chesshir, Joey Dean, Lucas Hargraves, Carmen Parks and Kristi Barr. Not political? Chesshir and Hargraves were registered lobbyists for the chamber in 2009 and its issues went beyond city development. Stodola insists that subsidy of the CEO's pay and benefits and other staff members does not amount to a contribution to general operations, which the contract forbids to avoid constitutional problems.
Charity begins at home
n The Little Rock Municipal Airport Commission this week adopted a new rule requiring the executive director to get preapproval for all purchases of tables or tickets at local functions. Records released to the Times after it went to press last week showed that at Mathieu's direction the airport paid $5,000 to the Winthrop Rockefeller Cancer Institute to sponsor the 2010 Gala for Life dinner recognizing Commissioner Tom Schueck and his wife, Marge, in May. Mathieu also used airport money to purchase $500 in tickets to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's Hall of Fame ceremony honoring Commissioner Jesse Mason and $1,250 for 10 tickets to the Aerospace Education Center's 31st annual Hall of Fame; both events were in October. Director Ron Mathieu previously explained a $5,000 contribution to UAMS for membership in its Chancellor's Circle as something he did to enhance employee care at UAMS, Though the hospital said membership in the circle conferred no real benefits.