Monday, December 10, 2007

Is University Incompetent, Arrogant, or Both?

While still wallowing in excuses for foolishly handing over $3.6 million in foundation funds to a non-fired football coach, it looks like the University of Arkansas has stepped in it again. The administrators and the board have been cutting multi-million dollar no-bid contracts to a select few contractors, and they won't let anyone see the paperwork. Mighty suspicious behavior for a public institution and its sweetheart contractor.

The latest example is a $35 million no-bid dormitory contract to Nabholz, and the lack of transparency and public accountability has not gone unnoticed. The Northwest Arkansas Times yesterday asked, "Does anyone know that’s happening? No, but when detailed explanations of the use of tax dollars aren’t revealed, it doesn’t take much to become suspicious. And it certainly creates a situation that’s ripe for abuse, with so much hidden in generalities." Compounding the situation, "the UA asserts it does not have the documents the contractor association seeks. Which sounds to us as though the UA doesn’t have a clue how tax dollars were specifically spent, and it seems a state agency should be aware of that and be able to demonstrate it with documentation."

Today's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is even more direct. "It’s hard to believe the University of Arkansas would really try to withhold from the public evidence about how the public’s money was spent. The usual receipts should be the least the university should have to show. But the university claims it doesn’t have any such documents. It’s a neat trick: no paperwork, no accountability. This they call bookkeeping? What other accounts has the UofA neglected to keep? It turns out that the university never even asked for any such documents in the first place. Instead, it just took the company’s word for it when it claimed $2.5 million in expenses. How did the company, Nabholz Construction of Conway, spend the money? The UofA doesn’t know anything about that, either. It doesn’t even seem to want to know."

David Gatzke, who represents a group of contractors who were shut out of the bidding process and have been trying to see the documents under the Freedom of Information Act, says, “It’s the audacity of these people who are entrusted with taxpayers’ money. They think they’re above us. They don’t have to answer to us.” He's absolutely right that the UA administrators think they're above the taxpayers and that they don't have to answer to us.

If our governor and state legislature cannot reign in the arrogance and end the secrecy, they can at least amend the law to prohibit such irresponsible actions with public money and the blatant disregard toward citizens' right to information about how it is spent.

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