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Head of panel promoting LR calling it quits

Ringgold says PR damage ties her hands; others agree

By C.S. Murphy

This article was originally published January 23, 2007 at 6:29 p.m. Updated December 24, 2006 at 6:00 a.m.

Mary Beth Ringgold resigned as chairman of the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission on Saturday after a week of criticism over the agency's spending practices.

The "public relations damage will prohibit me from being helpful," she wrote in a letter addressed to City Manager Bruce Moore and the city Board of Directors. "Though I wanted to fix the true and untrue allegations against the A and P Commission, it now appears that can be done more effectively by a new chairman."

After a six-month investigation, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported last week that the Convention and Visitors Bureau, which the commission governs, frequently has failed to follow local bidding laws and its own purchasing policies.

The review by the newspaper also found that bureau leaders improperly channeled tens of thousands of dollars in public revenue to businesses owned by members of the commission, including Ringgold.

Mayor-elect Mark Stodola, who said in a story published Saturday that the city agency needs an overhaul, said late Saturday that it was "regrettable" that Ringgold resigned. He said he has known Ringgold for years and believes she's "fair and honest."

"I think the staff has failed the commission in multiple ways over the years," he said. "She just happens to be the chairman this time out. Private citizens who volunteer their time really depend on the staff to make sure they follow proper procedures. It's obvious, in my opinion, that the staff totally let them down."

Ringgold said in the letter that she'll continue to support the city in other ways, saying, "Little Rock is a great city, and my passion for nine years has been to promote it." She didn't return calls Saturday evening.

Moore, reached at his home, said Ringgold hand-delivered her letter of resignation Saturday afternoon, and he contacted city directors.

Ringgold defended her leadership during a Wednesday commission meeting, saying recent coverage in the Democrat-Gazette about oversights at the bureau was "misleading."

"You can imagine waking up on Sunday morning and ... you're above the fold, in a place that's reserved for terrorists and car bombings," she said. "It's very unsettling."

A Democrat-Gazette review of bureau expenditures for the past three years disclosed payments totaling more than $141,000 to her restaurants, Cajun's Wharf and Capers.

The bureau, for instance, paid for a $52,174 party at Cajun's Wharf the week of the Clinton Presidential Center opening in November 2004. The payment was made without competitive solicitation, with no bidding and no vote of the commission.

City Director Joan Adcock said she appreciates Ringgold's willingness to leave a commission she has served for about a decade.

"This is going to have to happen before we move ahead, I'm afraid," she said. "I agree with her that with everything that happened, that it would be difficult for her to be part of the solution."

Mayor Jim Dailey, who leaves office at the end of this month, said he talked with Ringgold before she resigned Saturday and told her he understood her decision.

"I would never have asked for a resignation, but it's probably best for her and the city," he said. "I was pleased for both that she had reached that conclusion."

Dailey has openly supported Ringgold during the past week, saying he didn't believe she did anything wrong and that he still believed in her as a leader.

The newspaper's review found that the bureau lacks guidelines and detailed accounting procedures for employee expenses.

It purchased a car as a retirement gift for the former director of the bureau, using public funds and money solicited from firms that do business with or stand to benefit from activities of the bureau. The car was purchased without bids.

When expenditures have required votes of the commission, they typically involved little or no public discussion.

The agency violated state law by spending more than half a million dollars on marketing projects last year without seeking competitive bids, which prompted City Attorney Tom Carpenter to order a review of the bureau's purchasing practices.

That review will be completed in early January, the bureau chief executive, Dan O'Byrne, said Wednesday.

The commission collects and dispenses the 2 percent "hamburger tax," a sales tax levied on hotel and restaurant customers. The commission and the visitors bureau, which has a $12 million annual budget, don't regularly answer to any public agency about how they handle that revenue.

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