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LR mayor-elect says bureau changes likely

He calls lax spending procedures shocking

By C.S. Murphy

This article was originally published January 23, 2007 at 5:45 p.m. Updated December 23, 2006 at 6:00 a.m.

Little Rock can expect to see major changes on its Advertising and Promotion Commission and the city bureau it governs early next year, with a new mayor entering City Hall and nearly half of the commission seats up for grabs.

Mayor-elect Mark Stodola said Friday that he has some tough questions for the staff and legal counsel of the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau about recent Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports.

A newspaper investigation found that bureau leaders improperly channeled tens of thousands of dollars in public revenue to businesses owned by members of the commission, which governs the bureau, and failed to follow local bidding laws and their own purchasing policies.

"I just am shocked that there is a lack of procedures to deal with this sort of thing," Stodola said. "I want to see that we have much stronger involvement and controls over not just the A and P Commission but all city boards and commissions."

Several changes are likely on the way, he said.

"Rest assured - it's the main focus."

In a report published earlier this week, the newspaper also revealed:

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 the city attorney to order a review of the bureau's purchasing practices.

The bureau's staff won't be immune to transitional changes, Stodola said, because the entire outfit is overdue for a cultural change.

"The issue of accountability and following proper statutory regulations and ordinances is, no question, paramount," he said. "Ignorance is not an excuse. There are people on the staff that should be advising them."

Even without Stodola's action, the commission was in for a transformation.

Commissioner Bruce Bennett, who has challenged commission practices in the past, resigned Wednesday; Mayor Jim Dailey's term expires at the end of the month when he leaves the mayor's office; and City Director Dean Kumpuris' term will expire on Dec. 31, according to Little Rock Clerk Nancy Wood.

Before Bennett resigned Wednesday, he called for the entire commission to step down. Instead, the commission voted 6-1 for Chairman Mary Beth Ringgold and Commissioner Blair Allen to remain on the board.

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

Allen's family owns the Pyramid Park office building in west Little Rock and has collected $3,090 a month since September 2005 for extra office space that the bureau rents. The bureau entered into the lease agreement without following local bid laws or its own policy governing purchases for amounts below the bid law threshold of $25,000. Allen disclosed to the commission his family's interest in the building and abstained from voting on the office space rental.

Bennett, the commission's at-large representative, will be replaced by the city Board of Directors, Wood said. Typically, the board fills such vacancies at its annual organizational meeting, scheduled for Jan. 16, she said.

Stodola has the option of taking Dailey's vacated seat on the board or appointing someone else to take that spot. The city Board of Directors must vote on whether to reappoint Kumpuris or choose a new city board member for the seat Kumpuris has held for several years.

Arkansas Code Annotated 26-74-503 requires the commissions to have four members who are "owners or managers of businesses in the tourism industry, at least three of whom shall be owners or managers of hotels, motels or restaurants" for staggered terms of four years.

The Little Rock commission members are: Ringgold, whose term expires in May 2007; Allen, whose term expires in May 2008; Vice Chairman Jim Shamburger, in May 2009; Dailey, whose term expires on Dec. 31; Capi Peck, whose term expires in 2010; Kumpuris, whose term expires Dec. 31.

Stodola said Friday that he'll wait until his second board meeting as mayor - on Jan. 16 - to determine who his designee will be.

He'll give city directors a chance to consider whether they're interested in openings on all boards and commissions. Stodola said Kumpuris hasn't told him whether he's interested in remaining on the commission.

The city Board of Directors will also go through a change next month with four new members taking seats. They are Stodola, Ken Richardson, Doris Wright and Erma Fingers Hendrix.

Stodola hasn't decided whether he'll take a position on the commission or even whether his designee will be a city board member or someone from the community at large.

Stodola said he has talked to legislators who are considering filing bills during the legislative session, set to begin next month, that would change the makeup of advertising and promotion commissions.

Rep.-elect Kathy Webb, DLittle Rock, said legislators have been following news of the bureau.

"There has been a lot of buzz at the Capitol, and we've been hearing from constituents," she said. "I think there probably will be some legislators looking at that law."

Webb, a restaurant owner, said she has trouble with the makeup of advertising and promotion commissions.

"I don't think we have to have people from the tourism industry on that commission," she said.

Stodola questioned the wisdom of having city directors on the commission when the city board appoints commissioners.

"That would require a change by the Legislature," he said.

And, under current law, the city Board of Directors is the sole body that can remove commissioners, city Attorney Tom Carpenter said Friday.

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