The LR chamber does the public's business. Is it accountable? Blue Hog on the case. | Arkansas Blog

Friday, October 20, 2017

The LR chamber does the public's business. Is it accountable? Blue Hog on the case.

Posted By on Fri, Oct 20, 2017 at 1:35 PM

click to enlarge INFORMATION PLEASE: Matt Campbell files an FOI with Mayor Stodola (left) and Chessir. - ARKANSAS BUSINESS/TWITTER
  • Arkansas Business/Twitter
  • INFORMATION PLEASE: Matt Campbell files an FOI with Mayor Stodola (left) and Chessir.

Matt Campbell
, lawyer and Blue Hog Report blogger, has sent a Freedom of Information Act request to Jay Chessir, director of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Mayor Mark Stodola related to the publicity stunt yesterday  built around withdrawing from the mayor's rash pronouncement that the city would seek an Amazon HQ2 project even though the city  didn't meet the company's criteria.

A 'breakup letter" with Amazon was meant to pitch Little Rock as a great place for others to locate. Love, Little Rock said the T-shirts and social media vehicles ginned up for the occasion.

Reporters tried unsuccessfully yesterday to get information from Chessir on the chamber's expenditure for a Washington Post newspaper ad, an airplane banner flown around Seattle and other expenses and whether that money would be drawn from the $300,000 in taxpayer money the city sends annually to subsidize chamber operations.

Was the work within the scope of the city contract? If so, details should be open, Campbell argues. If not, could and did the chamber draw on the $300,000 for its expenses? Past experience indicates it will take a lawsuit to answer these questions because the Chamber considers its business, no matter how much public money it gets, as secret. Campbell says he's inclined to go that route.

I've been down this road before. The chamber reveals nothing about its work for the city, except the broadest sort of general statements on the entirety of its general operations. The city says this is good enough for them. The theory is that the chamber is contracted to work on economic development for the city and how it spends its money is its own business.

Argues Campbell in his letter about work done by the chamber on the Amazon rejection gimmick, announced in tandem by Stodola and Chessir.
Mayor Stodola specifically discussed these actions (including the withdrawal) as being a form of economic development, which puts those actions within the scope of the Chamber's contract with Little Rock and makes all records related thereto subject to the AFOIA.
Stodola had correspondence from Chessir on Wednesday, the day he received my own FOI about the matter. He didn't respond to the request until the next day, long after the publicity stunt had been rolled out.

I wish Campbell luck. I supported the lawsuit that ended city payouts to the chamber because they blatantly violated a constitutional prohibition against municipal payments to private corporations. That successful lawsuit prompted the legislature to propose a constitutional amendment, subsequently passed by voters, to legalize taxpayer subsidies to chambers of commerce. (I can't help but add that the architect of that amendment, then-Sen. Jon Woods is now under indictment for taking kickbacks from state grants to a Bible college.)

In a better world, a business lobby would raise its money from its members, not taxpayers. The issue is accountability to the diverse people who are paying the salaries of Chessir and others at the chamber.

The chamber is a fellow traveler in the activities of the Arkansas corporate lobby. It is currently supporting the effort to shut courthouse doors to damage lawsuits. It supports pro-business legislation on workers comp and unemployment benefits. It opposed the Affordable Care Act. The Little Rock chamber led the effort for state takeover of the Little Rock School District. The chamber hates unions. The business lobby supports tax giveaways to private business, but not social welfare programs for poor people. The Little Rock chamber wants a wider freeway through Little Rock so Little Rock cops and others can drive home faster to their homes in white-flight suburbs. The business lobby opposes meaningful environmental regulation.  I could go on.

Yes, the business lobbyists are entitled to hold all these views and advocate them fiercely. But something's wrong with taxpayers paying salaries for people working against their interests.

I hope Campbell gets somewhere on disclosure. Because someday the Chamber really will go after a legitimate business, not simply pull a dopey, derivative (heard of "I Love New York"?) one-day social media stunt based on the city's obvious unsuitability as a site for Amazon to expand.

The city taxpayers, who pay Chessir's salary, deserve to know the chamber's pitch when it's made to real business prospects. Does it include touting things some of us might see as negatives? (Our people work cheap! They'll play hell trying to  sue you if they get injured on the job!)

We should be able to see Chessir's paperwork on work he did for the mayor, just as much as we should be able to see the paperwork of the city manager or the city planning director.

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