Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Stealth campaigning reaches the city board level

Posted By on Wed, Jul 2, 2014 at 12:39 PM

click to enlarge OPPOSING MAPCO: Smart Growth group lobbying LR City Board.
  • OPPOSING MAPCO: Smart Growth group lobbying LR City Board.

I mentioned recently that robocalling was reported several days ago to stir opposition to Little Rock City Board approval of a MAPCO gas station and convenience store at Third and Broadway, in the midst of a government corridor bracketed by a federal courthouse, City Hall, the County Courthouse and the under-renovation Robinson Auditorium.

There's been near universal opposition from government and neighborhood groups to this terrible idea. But MAPCO, a Nashville-based chain, hired power real estate man Dickson Flake to get the deal done and he's adept at lobbying city government. (Witness Planning Commission approval over objections of the city's professional planning staff.) He fell short, however. In the face of a lack of six votes to approve the proposal Tuesday night, the company pulled it down and got a three-month delay. So lobbying will continue. From all sides.

Dickson Flake and MAPCO are out front. He's being paid by them to get this deal done.

The opponents paying for robocalling aren't so obvious.

The Democrat-Gazette reported this morning that the robocalls were the work of Smart Growth Little Rock. Christen Carter, an employee of the Markham Group, which managed the Restore Robinson bond issue campaign for the auditorium renovation, created a Facebook page for the group. She wouldn't disclose backers of the effort or calling to the newspaper, other than to say it covered many in the community. 

I've  been unable to reach Carter. But for now:

I agree COMPLETELY with Smart Growth Little Rock. I think a convenience store at Third and Broadway is a TERRIBLE idea. I voted HAPPILY for the Robinson Auditorium expansion. It is PRECISELY, maybe the biggest reason, to oppose a cheesy 24-hour beer-and-Slim Jim vagrant magnet 1.5 blocks from the front door of the auditorium.

BUT ....

I am tired of opaque campaigning. When the Markham Group acted as a money laundry for the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce-backed half-billion-dollar city sales tax, I filed an ethics complaint over lack of disclosure of campaign spending beyond checks written to the Markham Group. Ethics Commission staff backed me, but the commission decided finally that the law was hazy. It dismissed my complaint but proposed and won a law change that required such disclosure in the future.

The Markham Group happens to be handling the PR work for the secretively financed group, FASTERArkansas, working to change state law so that the state can offer a broadband network to public schools, a service now monopolized by private phone companies. I tend to favor the idea, but not the campaign secrecy and lack of lobbyist registration and disclsoure, even though the group is directly lobbying the legislature.

Major state campaigns in the primary and the coming special election are likewise being financed by secretively financed groups protected by federal tax and campaign law from disclosure.

And now secrecy has extended all the way down to the city Planning Commission level, with a campaign managed, it so happens, by someone from the Markham Group. Expenditures to date may be minimal. But that Facebook page certainly has been busy (stocked with Arkansas Times reports, too, I'm proud to say). From my own experience, I know it takes a lot of time and attention to do Facebook, Twitter and all the rest. Some people are obsessive and do it at all hours without concern for compensation, I can also attest. But if somebody is being paid to do it ...... 

At a minimum, the current campaign points out a potentially huge loophole for campaigns that might be able to avoid lobbyist disclosure requirements. Typically, an expenditure of $400 to influence a legislative action — from the city to the state level — requires registration as a lobbyist. But there's effectively an exception — "unless the communication has been filed with the Secretary of State or has been published in the news media." An ad hoc group thus could form and chip in money for newspaper ads (tens of thousands of dollars worth, even)  and make no disclosure about the financing. Might you make a similar argument for telephone communications and social media work? It's a troubling prospect.

Transparency is always better. That applies, too, to the report that somebody had cranked up robocalling FOR the MAPCO. Give us transparency on the payment sources on that, too. Speaking of robocalling: It's prohibited by state statute. But most believe the law, like a lot of state laws, is unconstitutional. First Amendment, remember, protects political speech.

PS — I've been unable to reach the head of the Restore Robinson effort to see if there's any overlap with their campaign and this effort to protect the looks of the nearby street. That group had more than $6,000 left over after its $50,000 campaign, according to a January report. It disclosed its contributors, a lineup of business people for the most part, including City Directors Gene Fortson and Dean Kumpuris.

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