UAMS and UALR Chancellors Dan Rahn and Joel Anderson made overdue calls last night to the Little Rock Technology Park Authority for more neighborhood consideration in choosing a site for the taxpayer-financed project ($22 million has been committed so far but documents suggest $50 million is desired for the startup and not a single private dollar has yet trickled in.)
Insensitivity is unsurprising. Concerns of the low-income and majority-minority neighborhoods targeted for destruction are far removed from the posh neighborhoods where the seven Authority board members live, as the map shows. (Johnson lives in Bigelow.) The map also doesn’t show the entire city limits of Little Rock, a much larger area. Are poor people too stupid to serve on this board? I don’t think so.
Problems that need fixing sooner rather than later with this Authority:
* It’s funded by taxpayers but taxpayers have no meaningful input. UAMS and UALR each names two members. The Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce has, by effect of city law, a designated spot on the board. The law should be changed. The Little Rock mayor’s two appointments could be expanded to three and if the mayor wants to include people presumed to have business development knowhow (the board is nothing but business community interests as it is), he can do so without giving the chamber a lock on naming a board member. If you’re going to give a political lobby a designated seat, how about give one to the AFL-CIO, too?
* The law should require financial disclosure by its members. Voluntary disclosure isn’t enough. We need certainty that they are covered, too, by laws limiting gifts to members and related business dealings. And this is a group that bears watching. Did you know board member Dickson Flake, who dreamed up this idea, was the real estate broker for land sold by a rental real estate investor for a library branch nearby? Surprise, the man turned up last night to sing Flake’s praises at the Tech Board — and happily volunteer to sell it some rental property. Was his past tie to Flake revealed publicly? It was revealed inadvertently to our reporter, prompting Flake to whisper urgently in his ear. The man quickly left the meeting before he could talk further to our reporter.
* Not soon, but now, it’s time for administration of the agency to be removed from the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. This puts an unaccountable private lobbying group that has repeatedly fought full public disclosure in charge of, what else, public disclosure. Its latest rule — effective today — is that requests for information may only be made directly to Chamber boss and ex-officio board member Jay Chesshir. Access to records is now subject not only to his whim but also his availability. He’s a hard man to reach.
* The board composition should include someone who represents the public at large. If you want statutory board members, one from the neighborhood would assure more public confidence than a guaranteed member from the secretive, anti-worker LR C of C. It’s already represented by a former chamber president, Eddie Drilling, and the chamber member, Flake, who dreamed up the idea and who has unilaterally chosen consultants to be paid with public dollars.
A confidence-inspiring board (a single minority and a single woman to represent a majority-minority city with about 50 percent female population isn’t a good start either) would require leadership, however, from Mayor Mark Stodola. But he’s defaulted throughout this process to, who else?, Jay Chesshir. Chesshir, in addition to running the secretive campaign to win Stodola a half-billion-dollar sales tax that included a $22 million gratuity for Chesshir to control, was also Stodola’s Parisian dining partner on a past publicly financed jet junket. It’s all very chummy, if only you’re from the right neighborhood.