It has been transparent for some time that the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce ran the campaign to pass the $500 million Little Rock city sales tax and that it is now running the Little Rock Technology Park Authority, which got a $22 million cut of the tax proceeds to build an office building that threatens some inner city neighborhoods with mass removal.
That’s not illegal. But the chamber’s politics — and its resistance to accountability — make it unsettling. The chamber’s control of the Tech Park — though stoutly denied by city officials — seems a particularly dangerous delegation of public power, money and trust to a private organization whose interests don’t tend to extend to the working class and poor.
But the city and chamber persist in insisting the chamber’s control is a figment of our imagination. This, despite the controlling influence of chamber CEO Jay Chesshir in everything from secrecy of tax campaign expenditures to writing directives and making committee appointments for Tech Park Authority Chair Mary Good to regurgitate. Mayor Mark Stodola wrote to Times senior editor Max Brantley March 31, for example:
“I know you dispute this, but the chamber did not ‘run’ the sales tax election. Several in the business community supported the tax as part of a broad based coalition and contributions came from several sources, not just the business community.”
Earlier this week, a news release from the University of Arkansas announced that Will Whiting was leaving a job as vice president of public advocacy and public policy at the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce to become assistant director of development for university initiatives at the University of Arkansas. From the news release:
“During his time with the Little Rock Chamber, Whiting was responsible for the public advocacy division, which includes governmental affairs, public relations and public policy. He planned and implemented several campaigns for the Little Rock Chamber including the passage of a recent sales tax for the city of Little Rock. He was also responsible for the strategic development and management of the newly created Little Rock Technology Park Authority Board.”
Either the chamber ran the tax campaign and runs the Tech Park Authority or it doesn’t. The Tech Park Authority can make no credible claim of independence as long as it is managed administratively by the Chamber and the Chamber and its allies control the Board and even the committee established to supposedly look after neighborhood concerns.