Commentary

A chance at unity devolves into political division and recrimination

LR mayor’s vision of a city celebration ends up canceled after contract and transparency lapses

Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr., seen here at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City in September, was forced to cancel a planned city celebration this week amid controversy over a contract with a event planner.(Noam Galai/Getty Images for Clinton Global Initiative)

Could the Little Rock mayor’s race come down to how the city administration handled a contract for a party — and how the administration responds to public records requests?

The drama that has played out at City Hall, on Twitter and in the media the last three weeks kept getting stranger and stranger as a tenacious blogger and other media kept digging deeper into public records about LITFest, a music and arts festival that first-term Mayor Frank Scott Jr. had called “a homecoming,” a chance to celebrate the city and its diversity.

Tuesday afternoon, Scott officially canceled the festival, which had been scheduled for this weekend. The announcement followed the abrupt termination of the city’s contract with marketing and event planning firm Think Rubix by the city manager on Monday.

 

Statement from Little Rock Mayor Frank Scott Jr

 

In his statement announcing the cancellation, Scott said he had envisioned the festival as a unique event supporting the local economic and cultural development of the city through a “diverse and inclusive festival featuring music, the arts, food and informative panels – to unite the City.”

The cancellation came after a steady rain of revelations, and subsequent criticism, about the $45,000 contract that Think Rubix held to help the administration stage the festival.

The termination of the contract, which Think Rubix signed in June, came just days after City Attorney Tom Carpenter said the agreement raised “serious legal questions.” Among the concerns he raised was the obvious attempt by the mayor’s chief of staff to keep the contract under the $50,000 threshold that would have required the administration to seek approval from the city Board of Directors.

The contract, of course, was one Carpenter’s office presumably had signed off on. Carpenter said Tuesday that his office was never “asked to approve an alternative method of payment to Think Rubix that would violate the bid requirements of the City.” He was referring to a nonprofit created by a Think Rubix executive through which sponsorship funds would have been funneled, according to blogger and attorney Matt Campbell.

“So, the contract the City Attorney approved is not the contract that someone in the City chose to carry out despite language to the contrary,” Carpenter said.

All of the revelations from the public records, most of them through Campbell’s blog, Blue Hog Report, and via his Twitter feed, culminated in Monday’s termination of Think Rubix’s contract and Tuesday’s cancellation of LITFest.

But everything played out against the backdrop of Scott’s campaign for reelection, which pits the city’s first popularly elected Black mayor against the white retired owner of a string of car dealerships and two other long-shot candidates.

And this being Little Rock, the contract controversy is also illuminated by the city’s racial history and continued racial divide.

“I am disappointed that divisive politics negatively affected the vision and impact of this inaugural festival,” Scott said in his statement on LITFest’s cancellation.

Scott’s “divisive politics” comment wasn’t necessarily a reference to racial division; the campaign has already shown a sharp divide among the leading candidates’ opinions about crime and how progress in Little Rock is defined.

But speakers at Monday’s city Board of Directors meeting highlighted the racial lens citizens bring to the table.

“How can a man make a racist joke in front of a Black lady and nothing be done?” one Black man asked.

The speaker, Willis Bailey, was referring to a complaint filed against Carpenter by one of his employees, Samantha Wilson, who said in a letter to the city board that her boss used the word “n*****” in a conversation. Although the word wasn’t directed at her, she thought it inappropriate enough to report it to the city’s personnel office.

Wilson, a Black attorney, chose to go public with her complaint, she wrote, after Carpenter, who is white, told reporters that a city employee had deleted thousands of pages of records related to the Think Rubix contract. She identified herself as that employee and said that Carpenter’s remarks amounted to retaliation because they were made after she filed her HR complaint.

Also at Monday’s board meeting, Jimmie Cavin, a white man from Conway known for battling the Scott administration over public records requests, praised Carpenter for giving him “a flicker of hope” about having a responsive government. He called rumored efforts to fire Carpenter “a desperate attempt to assassinate your character.”

Attorney Marion Humphrey Sr., a Black attorney who represents Samantha Wilson, told the directors: “Samantha has more character than many of you here.”

Meanwhile, Scott’s main opponent, Steve Landers, has been able to just watch and continue campaigning on what he claims is Little Rock’s inability to deal with rising crime.

Scott, for his part, used National Night Out on Tuesday to outline his response and plan for dealing with crime.

Still, the LITFest debacle raises this question: How badly, if at all, will it affect Scott’s vision for a second term?

It seems obvious from comments at Tuesday’s city board meeting and from social media that many Black Little Rock residents still back Scott, and not just because he’s Black.

How many white liberals who supported him in the 2018 campaign will continue to do so remains an open question.

Some of the liberal establishment, which includes some city board members and media commentators, have been critical of Scott’s handling of transparency issues, his strained relationship with the police, his plans for a tax increase, and his generally adversarial relationship with the Board of Directors.

But do those criticisms matter to the majority of the mayor’s supporters?

Scott won his first term by 6,340 votes in a runoff election with attorney and businessman Baker Kurrus, who threw his support behind Landers in a no-holds-barred column published Sept. 29 in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and by the Arkansas Times.

On Wednesday, Robert L. Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television and chairman of RLJ Companies, endorsed Landers for mayor, according to a press release from Landers’ campaign. Johnson, Landers and Mack McLarty, another car dealership magnate, partnered 17 years ago in RML Automotive.

Scott and Landers have been campaigning hard, and with the election just over four weeks away, it’s certain the race for mayor of Arkansas’ capital city will continue to heat up. Whether it will generate as much flash as the LITFest mess and whether it will make a difference in the outcome, we won’t know until after Nov. 8.

This commentary has been updated to add links to Landers’ and Scott’s plans for dealing with crime.

 

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Sonny Albarado, Arkansas Advocate
Sonny Albarado, Arkansas Advocate

In his 50-year career, Sonny Albarado has been an investigations editor, a business editor, a city editor, an environmental reporter and a government reporter at newspapers in Arkansas, Tennessee and Louisiana. Most recently, he retired from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette after serving as projects editor for 12 ½ years. He got his start in journalism as editor of the Nicholls Worth, the student newspaper at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1973. Nicholls awarded him an honorary Doctor of Letters in 2014.

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