Saturday, September 14, 2013

The University of Arkansas: A law unto itself

Posted By on Sat, Sep 14, 2013 at 8:48 AM

click to enlarge BIG BUSINESS: The University of Arkansas is a business entitled to competitive protection, Chancellor Gearhart insists.
  • BIG BUSINESS: The University of Arkansas is a business entitled to competitive protection, Chancellor Gearhart insists.

Speaking of sports and priorities:

Now the University of Arkansas says it would be put at a "competitive disadvantage" if it revealed how much it paid creampuff colleges to play a football date in Arkansas.

State Rep. Andy Mayberry noted yesterday that the UA redacted information about how much money it agreed to pay the University of Southern Mississippi to play football in Fayetteville today, in response to the Democrat-Gazette's FOI request. We know the amount was $975,000 because the newspaper in Memphis got that number from Southern Miss.

From today's Democrat-Gazette, a rare opportunity to laud the perspicuity of Andy Mayberry:

“I guess I fail to see what would be so proprietary in nature that the university would be so protective of that,” Mayberry said.

“But it seems to be part of a more overall approach or perhaps a lack of transparency, or maybe it’s just a perception of such,” Mayberry told [Chancellor David] Gearhart. “How can the university in your opinion address that perception that the university is not being as open and forthcoming with information as perhaps it should be with people of the state?”

Gearhart oozed the usual arrogant Fetvul-knows-best line:

“We believe it is a competitive disadvantage to us if we released that information. We are trying to keep our expenses at the Razorback Foundation and intercollegiate athletics as low as we can, and our feeling is that this is information that would hurt us in contract negotiations with other teams,” he said.

It's another outrageous misuse of the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act by the UA, which outrages daily with lack of transparency. (The low-cost invocation is particularly rich for an outfit that just bought a $4 million private jet.)

The UA developed this protectionist theory some years ago in successfully fighting in lower court the Arkansas Times' effort to see files compiled in the UA's  obtaining a $300 million gift from the Waltons. We know now that the gift came with many pre-conditions that have lasting impact to this day, such as support for an arm of the university dedicated to teacher union busting. No Supreme Court ruling upheld that misinterpretation of the law —  a ruling  that then-newspaper law expert Leon Holmes, now a federal judge, thought was in error. The Times couldn't afford a Supreme Court appeal, having already spent $15,000 fighting a phalanx of public and private lawyers for a secrecy-bent UA.

The resistance to public disclosure continues.

Just last week, the UA announced some scratch-my-back research by the Walton reform schoolers that supported the goodness of the Walton art museum in Bentonville. Leslie Peacock made a request for related files. She largely got the runaround. She was told she'd have to wait for all information until a news conference next week for the convenience of the dog-and-pony show media event. There is no Walton exception to the FOI — on the books. anyway But one exists in practice at the UA .

Football is on a par with Waltons in the UA official secrets closet.

The reason the UA interpretation is so perverse on both Walton money and football is that the competitive disadvantage exemption was not written for the state. It was written for private business and amended in a very specific context. It was meant to keep the public from looking at information about companies seeking state help to do business here and sharing information with the Economic Development Commission. I was there for the amendment that followed a successful lawsuit I brought to find out information about a potential foreign investor accused of racially discriminatory practices.. The exemption in the law itself makes the context clear;

Files which, if disclosed, would give advantage to competitors or bidders; and (b)(i) records maintained by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission related to any business entity’s planning, site location, expansion, operations, or product development/marketing, unless approval for release of such records is granted by the business entity; (ii) provided, however, this exemption shall not be applicable to any records of expenditures or grants made or administered by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and otherwise disclosable under the provisions of this chapter;

It is laughable to assert the University is a business deserving of protection afforded private business. If UA need not reveal football payments, why must it reveal salaries (lest it lose a way to low-ball job applicants). Or why must it reveal details of any contract, under the same reasoning? Some loss of competitiveness, if there be any, is the price of being a public institution. Did UA pay Southern Miss too much, for excample? Could we have gotten a more interesting team for less? Accountability applies in all decisions, unless you believe UA athletic figures ALWAYS make the right decision. LIke hiring a main squeeze of the football coach.

The University of Arkansas Foundation raises and spends millions — sometimes at the direction of Brother Honky Chris Wyrick — in ways that have not been and apparently will not be held accountable to the public. It spent millions on private vendors who work with Bro. Honky in fund-raising, but the public isn't allowed to know who they are. The Razorback Foundation does the same in operating athletics. How the Foundation spends the money it gets from your priority seat prices is none of your business, even though it is spent at the direction of Athletic Director Jeff Long.

And now the university pleads secrecy for a check written on public accounts to pay a football team to play in Fayetteville or Little Rock.

There oughtta be a law (amendment).

I bet Arkansas State University would reveal how much it receives on its payday jaunts around the country. Would it claim a competitive disadvantage, President Welch?

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