Columns » Max Brantley

Turbulence at airport

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The filling of an airport job last week inadvertently exposed internal airport political friction.

Bottom line: Airport Director Ron Mathieu properly exercised his executive power but made a policymaker unhappy in the process. It might cause Mathieu long-term headaches.

Last week, gas industry PR man Mark Raines accepted, and then declined, a $125,000-a-year job as director of PR and government relations for Little Rock National Airport. He cited family concerns.

Friday, I was told by two sources that Airport Commissioner Thomas Schueck, a forceful industrialist, had made clear his unhappiness at Raines' selection. Schueck backed another finalist, former City Director Michael Keck. Shortly after, Raines decided not to take the job. Word got back to Schueck that he'd been a factor. He called Raines and tried to make things right, but Raines decided to stay put in the Fayetteville shale world

"My decision for not taking that job is just very personal. I'm not going to get into a lot of that hearsay," Raines told me. He said he had heard from Schueck Thursday and appreciated his call and thought highly of the airport and its leaders. "It was a nice thing for him to do. And I'll just leave it at that."

Schueck said that he'd said nothing unpleasant publicly or privately about Raines, though he admitted he'd had a difference of opinion with Mathieu on whether the choice would be solely Mathieu's to make (as Mathieu had announced from the beginning) or a Commission decision.

"It's absolutely untrue that I said anything to anybody. I was happy with him," Schueck said. Yes, he did call Raines because he wanted to correct any impression he'd spoken ill of Raines. "He was not my favorite. But you don't always get what you want. I thought he was a wonderful candidate and would have made a great employee," Schueck said. He said Raines told him he didn't think he could work at the airport if there was a split on the commission.

Then there was this. The same sources told me that Schueck was upset with Mathieu for not choosing his preferred candidate because he thought Mathieu owed him a favor. By one source's account, Schueck had made it possible — either through his own direct contribution or one he arranged — for $40,000 to be contributed to Little Rock Christian Academy so it would repay the airport for the controversial $40,000 in airport ad dollars Mathieu had directed to the private school for a new football field surface. The airport got a sideline ad for the money. The matter became hotly controversial after the Arkansas Times uncovered it.

"Where do you keep coming up with those falsehoods?" Schueck asked.

That's not an answer to the question of whether Schueck helped the airport get its money back and Mathieu out of a jam.

"That's all been handled and I'm not going back into it," he said.

That's not a yes or no either, I noted, but it's all Schueck would say.

Schueck said that I shouldn't take this as any indication of any problem between him and Mathieu. Nonetheless, continued turmoil prompted a special Airport Commission meeting Tuesday. No action was taken, though there'd been buzz that Schueck might have the votes to push through Keck for the job.

It's Mathieu's call on what to do next, Commission Chairman Virgil Miller said, in consultation with the Commission's personnel committee. He added, "He has the full support of the Commission." We'll see.

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