Almost eight months ago, a group of public and private agencies announced a joint venture to lift the fortunes of children and families in inner city Little Rock.
With TV cameras rolling, Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock was introduced as the leader of the Central Arkansas Promise Neighborhood. Modeled on the famous Harlem Children's Zone, its aim is to coordinate health, education and other services in a comprehensive way from birth to jobs.
Partners: UALR, the city of Little Rock, UAMS, Children's Hospital, the Little Rock Preparatory Academy charter school, the Central Arkansas Library System, the Little Rock School District, New Futures for Youth. Churches, including Second Presbyterian, and private foundations have promised money and volunteers. The consortium won a highly sought federal planning grant.
But last week came a complication. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Elliott's hiring might run afoul of state law because UALR was her paying agent. A state law prohibits hiring of a state legislator by a state agency, if Promise Neighborhood be such.
That law was passed in 1999 after a powerful legislator, Ed Thicksten, got hired by a state agency he created and funded while he was a state legislator, and after another sitting legislator laid groundwork to lobby for a state university. It wasn't about a legislator — qualified as teacher, neighbor and organizer — working for a consortium including agencies legally able to pay her.
One fix was for the city of Little Rock to issue paychecks. But the city got cold feet. City officials insist influential businessman Dickson Flake had nothing to do with it. Flake is campaign treasurer for state Rep. Fred Allen, who is running against Elliott. Flake is powerful in the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. It receives $200,000 in city tax money each year. It ran — but didn't disclose expenditures in — the campaign to pass a huge city sales tax. That sales tax gave $22 million to the Little Rock Technology Park Authority, created by a law written by the chamber. Authority Board members include a statutory seat for the chamber and Flake himself. Elliott recently advocated fiercely before the board for neighbors who fear their land will be taken. She also has said she'll push in the next legislature for more financial disclosure by Authority board members and neighborhood protections.
The Democrat-Gazette's reporting has been a welcome tool for the newspaper's editorial page, where Elliott was already a public enemy for standing up to the charter school lobby that publisher Walter Hussman supports. Billionaire money, from charter school advocates Jim Walton and Jackson T. Stephens Jr., helps power Fred Allen's campaign, along with other corporate dough.
Monday, Elliott made the only realistic decision. She resigned her job with Promise Neighborhood. She hopes re-election will restore a measure of her good name and also remove controversy from a worthy project.
The tragedy is not her loss of income. The tragedy is that time is now short for application for grants to put the project in motion. I'm told the loss of Elliott also may cost the program some of its promised private support. The entire program is at risk.
If politics set these events in motion — and Elliott believes they did — the community and children at Bale, Franklin and Stephens elementary schools, Forest Heights Middle School, Hall High and Little Rock Preparatory Academy will pay the heaviest price.
Yes, the law is the law (though it's more ambiguous than it might seem.) But it was the law nearly eight months ago, too. Too bad it was not invoked then by those speaking so knowingly today, rather than — coincidentally — scant days before an election.
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