A critic of Mayor Frank Scott Jr., who blasted him during a public comment session during last Tuesday’s City Board meeting, got no response then. But Friday he finally did begin getting responses from the mayor’s administration, after threatening to file a criminal complaint on long-pending Freedom of Information Act requests about the mayor’s compensation and credit card spending.
The responses included a disclosure that the mayor draws a $500 monthly car allowance, even though he’s provided police chauffeured SUV at a cost estimated in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Cavin also finally dislodged some information on the mayor’s spending on travel and entertainment.
The developments prompted what I was told is a change in city policy on dealing with FOI requests, though I haven’t yet been told what the specific changes might be.
The critic is Jimmie Cavin of Conway, who’s a civic affairs gadfly who frequently employs FOI requests to get at targets. He has targeted, among others, the North Little Rock and Cabot school districts, the Lonoke County sheriff’s office, the North Little Rock police and the last race for mayor in North Little Rock.
Lately, he’s been seeking information from the Scott administration. He’s endeavored to find a figure that has been hard to pin down — the precise cost of personnel, vehicles and vehicle maintenance for the Little Rock police team that Scott took off the streets at the beginning of his administration to provide security. No previous mayor used such a police service.
Cavin also asked for the mayor’s “compensation” package and records of his expenses on the city credit card.
At Tuesday’s meeting, Cavin initially wasn’t allowed to speak during the public comment period though he arrived at the meeting 40 minutes early and said he was the first to sign a card to speak. Scott said people talking about South Little Rock neighborhood problems had used up the 30-minute session. Cavin objected. Scott said he could come back at the next meeting. But City Director B.J. Wyrick made a motion approved by the Board to allow the four or five people who’d signed up to speak to be given 15 more minutes.
Given his shot, Cavin blasted Scott for “playing king” rather than being a public servant by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on police “servants and personal attendants” and credit card expenses and by not fulfilling FOI requests, one of which dated back to July 2. Scott didn’t respond other than to thank Cavin for his remarks. Scott did respond later to a pastor* who said he had been happy to move to a city with a Black mayor and could never vote for his opponent, Steve Landers, but was disturbed by city officials who referred to the rising number of homicides as isolated or domestic incidents. “I want to hear that the people who are killed in this city matter and that you have a plan to stop it,” Jeff Hood said. Scott said he did have a plan, talked about it in some detail and said, “Every homicide hurts me. … Each time it takes a piece of my heart”
The meeting Tuesday was followed by the city’s continued failure to provide information to Cavin, despite advice by City Attorney Tom Carpenter that some information Cavin sought was open under the FOI and should be readily available, such as Scott’s salary of $160,000.
About 1:30 p.m. Friday, Cavin wrote city officials saying he was prepared to ask Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley on Monday to file criminal misdemeanor charges of violation of the Freedom of Information Act.
Shortly before 3 p.m. Friday, Cavin told me he’d just received responses to his request for information about the mayor’s compensation. I also requested and received a copy.
One batch of documents showed the value of the mayor’s city compensation package — $192,000 a year counting $160,000 pay, contributions to retirement and various insurance plans.
Another batch showed what appeared to be taxable payments made to the mayor. I haven’t been able to get a full explanation for the entries just yet, but they include some “bonus” payments, as high as $1,500 one year, as well as the $6,000 in car allowance.
I asked city spokesman Aaron Sadler about Scott’s initial decision not to allow Cavin to speak Tuesday, the delay in filling Cavin’s FOI request and the payment of a monthly car allowance. He responded:
The City is making some changes to its FOIA policy effective immediately.
It is City Board policy to have a time limit on citizen communication, but everyone was allowed to speak.
The Mayor’s compensation package must be comparable to highest paid municipal employee, which is the city manager. The city manager’s compensation is a $191,000 salary, $500 car allowance, and $25,000 bonus provided by the board. For comparison, the mayor’s salary is $160,000, a car allowance and no bonuses.
As has been discussed countless times, the mayor accepted security detail in 2019 per the recommendation of Interim Chief Wayne Bewley. That detail is one officer at any given time.
I asked several follow-ups including what changes are being made in FOIA policy. And also an explanation for listed bonuses. I haven’t heard back yet.
City FOI response has been a problem throughout the Scott administration, whether by design or poor management. A request for text messages and emails about city business invariably brings a response that no such information exists. This is hard to believe unless the city is engaging in a concerted practice of deleting emails and texts so they cannot be discovered. A gaping hole in state FOI law is the lack of a records retention policy, so there’s no legal bar to the practice.
Credit card records are harder to erase. Cavin reported on his Facebook page today that he had received about half of the credit card statements covering Scott’s tenure, which began in January 2019, shortly after 5 p.m. Friday. They covered more than $70,000 in charges, some for air and hotels. Cavin highlighted some $5,000 in charges to the Peabody Hotel and a Memphis restaurant in early January 2020 and more than $11,000 in charges at the Copper Grill in Little Rock, plus a $1,200 meal at Arthur’s Steakhouse. They can be perused on his Facebook post.
Is this political? Of course it is. One of the recipients of Cavin’s emails about developments is Dallas Green, spokesman for the Landers campaign.
But this doesn’t mean city compliance with FOI is off-limits nor is the spending by the mayor, whether his police traveling squad, the $6,000 annual car allowance or expensive dining.
Scott’s defenders say security is a must for this mayor, though no documented incidents have been revealed and no previous mayor has seen the need.
As for travel costs, mayors must travel, too. Other mayors did. Those costs can’t be instantly regarded as suspect. But some bear inspection. Remember Mark Stodola’s fine trip to Paris courtesy of the airport?
And what about city-paid lunches and dinners? Should the city pay? Maybe it is better for the city to pay than someone seeking the mayor’s help if these are all working meals. More recordkeeping on the reasons for travel and entertainment expenses could allay this concern.
The city’s YouTube has the full meeting here. The action occurs around the one-hour and 10-minute mark.
Cavin clipped his portion of the meeting.
Cavin isn’t alone in fighting city hall over its lack of transparency. There’s also Mitch McCoy at our news partner KARK:
— Mitchell McCoy (@MitchellMcCoy) August 5, 2022
*I wrote incorrectly originally that Jeff Hood**, the pastor who spoke at the City Board meeting, was Black. He has participated in protests against police brutality, including a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas in which five police officers were killed.
UPDATE: FOI requests submitted by Cavin in July produced responses from the city showing that 17 LRPD officers assigned to his security detail represented about $500,000 a year in pay and overtime during his four years as mayor, with 13 officers being assigned this year. It’s not clear if these are full-time assignments so I can’t readily apportion the total pay to the security detail, as Cavin does.
If you can’t access Facebook, here are Cavin’s findings in PDF form.
**A previous version of this post misspelled Jeff Hood’s last name.