Tuesday, November 16, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Airport needs new manager

Without taking time to pray about it, does this sound a little improper to you, or not? A small private academy with big-time athletic ambitions wants to put an artificial turf in its stadium in the western reaches of Little Rock near Chenal Valley and asks you for a big pledge to get it installed. Your son goes there. 

You have your assistant write the school a check for $40,000 on your employer’s bank account. It happens to be a public agency, the Little Rock National Airport.

And then you lie about it. Let’s amend that to say you were “misleading.”

That is what happened to Ronald Mathieu, the director of the national airport. The airport commission, which employs Mathieu, found out about the turf grant to the Little Rock Christian Academy over the weekend by reading an online account of it in the Arkansas Times. Mathieu and his $97,000-a-year press secretary refused to answer the little newspaper’s questions and then denounced its reporting as “innuendo and untruths.”

Mathieu or someone on his staff acting at his request gave the turf grant after arranging for it to be “advertising” for the airport. A sign on the field mentions the airport’s website, so the airport is paying $40,000 to put its imprimatur at a spot on the field for 10 years. You see, fans who see football games there will want to go out and fly somewhere, which will benefit the airport.

The expenditure was listed vaguely in a budget item for advertising last summer. A member of the commission asked why advertising costs had jumped from $5,000 the previous year to $47,000 this year. 

Without mentioning that $40,000 of it paid for new turf at the Little Rock Christian Academy, Mathieu said the commissioners had wanted him to promote the website and some other things and he was doing it in varying ways.

The commission was none too pleased to learn over the weekend what the expenditure was for and see the publicity about its reckless spending. The commission is trying to expand and modernize the airport and wants to look like a good steward of the public’s money. Tuesday, it allowed Mathieu to say that he was sorry for mishandling the matter, misleading his bosses, stonewalling the people at the Arkansas 
Times who asked about the matter and, well, just about everyone. He said he would never do anything like that again. He said he just had not thought about how the thing would appear.

The commissioners said they would see if there was any way that they could get the money back from the school, which has already spent it to put down the artificial surface and paint the airport’s little logo on a corner of it. They said they might look into Mathieu’s other spending a little more closely—there have been rumors—but they were eager to forgive him for the transgression. All our bosses should be so forgiving.

As of Tuesday, Mathieu’s press secretary was still stonewalling the newspaper’s questions.      

—Ernie Dumas