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The committee looking into questionable spending by the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau is going forward with its investigation, in spite of commissioners’ concerns about discussing the job performance of city employees in an open forum.
The independent commission, headed by retired Circuit Judge John Plegge, was appointed by new Mayor Mark Stodola in January to look into allegations of questionable spending practices at the Convention and Visitors Bureau. As detailed in a series of articles in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, this includes spending tens of thousands of tax dollars at businesses owned by members of the Advertising and Promotion Commission, which oversees the bureau, and using bureau funds for the purchase of a car for outgoing LRCVB chairman Barry Travis. The LRCVB is funded by a 2 percent sales tax on hotel and restaurant purchases — the so-called hamburger tax — resulting in an annual budget upwards of $12 million.
At the second meeting of the commission examining the LRCVB, held on Jan. 26 at Robinson Auditorium, some members of the group expressed a reluctance to discuss personnel issues in a public forum, saying they feared they might be open to slander lawsuits if they did. Those members inquired about the possibility of meeting in closed-door executive session. The idea was quickly shot down by City Attorney Tom Carpenter, who told the commission that such secret meetings would be a violation of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
Stodola, who was out of town on Jan. 26 and missed the meeting, said that he agrees with Carpenter that the commission doesn’t have the ability to go into secret meetings about personnel issues. Stodola added that he was “frankly a little surprised” that the discussion about executive session had even taken place.
“I had presumed there was no ability to even think about going into executive session,” he said. “ I had always presumed that [individual commissioners] were going to meet with people and discuss these issues with them one on one.”
On the issue of commissioners opening themselves to possible slander lawsuits by publicly discussing the job performance of city employees, Stodola said: “This is a body that had been appointed by the city, so certainly there are certain issues of tort immunity that exist for this body. I think it’s just a little premature to go down that road right now.”
Plegge said that there is no widespread reluctance to go forward on the part of the committee, even with the option of going into executive session over sensitive matters now off the table. He said commissioners would continue to investigate and report on personnel matters, “very carefully.”
“I think the main thing that brought all this to a head,” Plegge said, “is that there may well be some embarrassment [for LRCVB employees], and we don’t want to embarrass anyone.”
The issue of executive session came up, he said, partially because several members of the commission wanted to compare notes jointly as opposed to talking one-on-one to each other. Now that that issue is settled, they’re back to business.
“We’re still talking, interviewing people, going over records and budgets, the audits they had the last four years,” he said. “We’re still doing the same things that we always were.”
So far, Plegge said, the commission has found nothing that rises to the level of a criminal act, adding that the staff of the LRCVB has been fully cooperative. That squares with Stodola’s read of the investigation as it stands. The mayor said what has been uncovered so far makes it obvious that the LRCVB had developed a “culture” of not paying attention to state statutes and city ordinances that deal with competitive bidding and other financial issues.
“Those kind of culture changes are what’s going to result from this at a minimum,” Stodola said. Beyond that, Stodola said he is confident that committee members will know how to proceed should anything more serious come to light.
“Obviously, I’ve put seasoned people on the committee who have experience from a judicial perspective, and they’re very smart folks,” he said. “They know that if something more needs to be done, they know the appropriate avenues for referral.”