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Panel for LR's visitors bureau urged to quit

Member requesting step says problems big, resigns himself

By C.S. Murphy

This article was originally published January 23, 2007 at 6:00 a.m. Updated December 21, 2006 at 4:26 p.m.

Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commissioner Bruce Bennett on Wednesday asked Chairman Mary Beth Ringgold to resign and said the entire commission should step down within two months to give the public a "sense of clarity and freshness."

"I don't think, given what's transpired, we should continue on the same path," Bennett said at a commission meeting Wednesday. Bennett resigned later in the day.

Bennett has challenged commission practices in the past. In a resignation letter faxed to commissioners Wednesday evening, he said, "The recent problems that have emerged demand fundamental change."

Those problems were detailed in Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports that showed:

The Convention and Visitors Bureau, which the commission governs, has frequently failed to follow local bidding laws and its own purchasing policies.

It has far more employees and a far larger budget than comparable cities.

It improperly channeled tens of thousands of dollars in public revenues to businesses owned by members of the commission.

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

Although Mayor Jim Dailey said the Little Rock Advertising and Promotion Commission hadn't done anything wrong and was unfairly "under attack," the commission passed several new measures Wednesday to increase accountability.

"I think we have a great plan going forward," Ringgold said. "The objective of the commission is to provide total transparency."

Ringgold put the bureau's legal staff "on notice," ordering a report on any financial deficiencies by Jan. 15, including a plan to resolve any problems.

"We are all volunteers, and I'm not sure we're all exactly schooled on every little detail of the law," she said. "Staff needs to understand that they must follow policies and that there's going to be a no-tolerance policy for them."

Ringgold defended her leadership, saying recent coverage in the Democrat-Gazette about oversights at the bureau were "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."

Ringgold said she won't pursue any more business from the bureau at her restaurants, Cajun's Wharf and Capers. She said bureau employees could rip her cards out of their Rolodexes.

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

"It's not personal. These are taxpayers dollars," Bennett said later. "She should have stepped down. There's no question about it. She should give someone else an opportunity to lead the board. There should be more citizen input and oversight."

Ringgold said during the meeting that it's difficult for her to "take that pill" from Bennett because he's missed five of 13 commission meetings and was temporarily taken off the board for absences.

Dailey, who will be on the commission until he leaves the mayor's office later this month, said he thought it would be a "travesty" if the bureau stopped doing business with Ringgold's restaurants.

He praised Ringgold for her professionalism, saying, "I still believe in you Mary Beth."

The bureau will begin reporting to the city Board of Directors, which appoints commissioners, every two weeks, he said. He said the commission should find a larger, more accessible room for meetings and should include a time for public participation on agendas.

"We are under serious scrutiny. We must restore the trust," Dailey said.

City Director Dean Kumpuris echoed Dailey's affirmation of Ringgold, saying, "You didn't do a damn thing wrong."

O'Byrne explained his plan to overhaul the bureau's administrative structure, dividing work into three categories - real estate, convention and visitor marketing, and public-sector matters.

The bureau plans to begin using Little Rock's recently purchased procurement computer software. The bureau will be added as a "sanctioned user" of the city's Lawson Procurement software by mid-2007, O'Byrne said.

The commission approved allowing the Little Rock Human Resources Department to produce a new policies and procedures manual for the bureau and its first administrative-policy manual.

The bureau has no method for tracking how much money sales executives spend to draw a convention to Little Rock. The office has no regulations governing travel, personal-expense reimbursements, computer use, or alcohol purchase and consumption by employees.

The commission decided to table the renewal of a lease for office space at the Pyramid Park office building in west Little Rock and instead pay monthly until the bureau can decide how to move forward.

Commissioner Blair Allen's family owns the building 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 that his family owns the building and abstained from voting both in 2005 and on Wednesday.

Bureau leaders objected to the newspaper's comparison of their agency to its counterpart in Houston.

Both bureaus have annual budgets of $12 million.

Little Rock has 75 part-time and 105 full-time employees, four of whom were paid in excess of $100,000 last year. Houston, the fourth-largest city in America, has 83 full-timers.

Nationwide, the average city tourism bureau budget is $4.4 million, according to a survey of 222 bureaus conducted by Destination Marketing Association International, the world's largest association of convention and visitor bureaus.

That survey also shows the average city tourism agency employs 11 full-time workers.

Comparing convention and visitors bureaus is "enormously complex," O'Byrne said. Little Rock's bureau manages real estate, including two hotel properties and three parking decks, which is unusual, he said.

"It is impossible to compare what we do here to what they do in Houston or virtually any other visitors bureaus in the country," he said.

O'Byrne estimated Wednesday that the bureau spends $2.8 million to $3.5 million per year on traditional convention functions.

The bureau spends $1.2 million on debt service and required reserves per year, he said. The rest of the budget, he said, goes to overhead costs, building upkeep and administrative employees who collect taxes and respond to public requests for information.

Only 21 bureau employees work specifically on convention and visitors business, he said, and the work of 68 employees is related to the bureau's real estate holdings.

The bureau also manages the Robinson Center and the Statehouse Convention Center, he said, which accounts for a portion of the agency's payroll and staff.

In Little Rock, the commission is solely responsible for collecting the 2 percent sales tax levied on hotel and restaurant customers. Houston collects voluntary per-room membership dues from hotels, which are then compelled to report specific occupancy information to the bureau.

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