Little Rock city board approves ordinance giving members more oversight on contracts in wake of LITFest

FILE — Little Rock City Hall is shown in this 2019 file photo.
FILE — Little Rock City Hall is shown in this 2019 file photo.

The Little Rock Board of Directors on Tuesday approved an ordinance meant to give board members more oversight of forthcoming professional-services contracts that are expected to fall under the city manager's unilateral spending limit.

Under the previous framework, City Manager Bruce Moore could authorize contracts, with the exception of those for lobbying services, that fell below $50,000 following a competitive bidding process without bringing each item before the city board for formal approval.

As a result of the ordinance approved Tuesday, the city manager can still approve contracts for professional services, except for lobbying and political consulting work, under $50,000 as long as he provides the mayor and city board members every Monday (or the next business day if City Hall is closed) a list of pending professional-services contracts that are expected to fall under the threshold.

The ordinance imposes a time frame on the circulation of the list: 14 days before the city issues a request for proposals.

During that 14-day period, city board members, including the mayor, can submit a proposed contract as a discussion item for an upcoming city board meeting, according to the ordinance.

Not following the process laid out in the ordinance "for any reason whatsoever" would bar the city from entering into a contract. The provisions do not apply during emergency situations.

Vice Mayor Lance Hines, who represents Ward 5, sponsored the ordinance.

He secured the eight-vote supermajority needed to add the ordinance to the meeting agenda, and board members later approved the measure in a voice vote.

At a meeting last week, Hines indicated he would bring forward two ordinances, including one he described as a "straight reduction" of the city manager's spending authority, but only the one draft ordinance materialized.

Hines proposed the ordinance in the wake of the failure of LITFest, a new city festival that Mayor Frank Scott Jr.'s administration attempted to launch in October.

To help organize the festival, the city tapped public-affairs firm Think Rubix with a $45,000 contract. Think Rubix had recently hired Scott's former chief of staff, Charles Blake.

Because the amount of the contract fell below $50,000, it did not go before the city board. Moore signed the event-promotion agreement June 9.

When Little Rock announced Think Rubix had been selected, the city maintained that Blake had not been involved with Think Rubix's bid response tied to LITFest; documents later showed Blake had assisted officials at the public-affairs firm while they prepared a response.

At one point, during a procurement meeting that was held virtually and captured on video, Scott's chief of staff, Kendra Pruitt, endorsed the idea of keeping the value of the Think Rubix contract below $50,000 to avoid city board consideration and using sponsorship money to pay for additional work.

In the end, Moore canceled the contract with Think Rubix on Oct. 3 over legal concerns, and Scott acknowledged the following day that the festival would not occur.

Another contract under $50,000 drew scrutiny prior to the election when Ward 4 City Director Capi Peck said that Scott had instructed the director of the city's Planning and Development Department to withhold a document from one of her constituents.

The citizen's request was related to a development plan for three different areas of the city. A $49,140 contract to prepare the study had been awarded to a firm led by two Scott campaign donors.

Additionally, last year, city board members adopted an ordinance that said the city manager's unilateral spending authority did not extend to legal settlements after a controversial settlement ended litigation filed against the city as a result of a 2019 fatal police shooting.

The ordinance, which was also sponsored by Hines, said the city attorney or a representative must inform board members and the mayor about the nature of a proposed settlement and the right to discuss the settlement in a public meeting.

Attorneys for the Arkansas Municipal League and two law firms had negotiated the settlement agreement with the estate of Bradley Blackshire, a 30-year-old Black man killed by a white officer. City Attorney Tom Carpenter objected to the way the settlement was handled.

The settlement agreement was ultimately executed in spite of concerns that city board members and the city attorney had been left out of the process. Little Rock agreed to pay Blackshire's estate $49,500 via the city manager's office and the Municipal League agreed to pay $250,500.

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