A very intense meeting of the Uniform Personnel Classification and Compensation Plan Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council occurred today at the state capitol. If you have not been keeping up, the State Forestry Commission was forced to let 36 employees go this month due to funding shortfalls, specifically due to a trust fund which had been completely depleted. Director John Shannon testified last week before a state legislative panel that he was not aware of the problem as he was not told by the financial officer until a couple months ago.
However, the former financial officer, Robert “Sarge” Araiza, stated to the press and again in committee today that this was not true. He offered numerous e-mails and correspondence detailing that Shannon had been made aware for several years about the funding problem, but did not raise the issue to legislators or the public.
The meeting grew especially tense when Araiza testified that employees were told not to talk to legislators, but filter all communication through Director Shannon. In addition, Araiza testified that a meeting planned to discuss the funding problems and possible solutions was canceled in 2010 at the request of the Governor’s office due to the upcoming 2010 elections.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yd8ztbBOGaY]
This statement was met with incredulity from several Democratic state legislators who pounced on Araiza. Termed-limited Sen. Percy Malone (D-Arkadelphia) led the charge questioning Araiza’s credentials since he does not have an accounting degree and how this was possible since state law protects employees to allow them to speak to legislators. Araiza held firm insisting that while that may be the law, that is not the way Director Shannon runs his agency.[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xKyvb396a1w]
After a short break, Shannon got his turn in front of the committee and began by stating “the blame is mine” and complimenting Araiza saying there are “few people I admire more in my life.” But he denied Araiza’s claim that he had told his employees not to talk to legislators. Shannon insisted that the specific reference supported in an email from Araiza was one instance where he asked an employee to allow him to visit with the Governor’s office first before going directly to the legislature.
Shannon did admit to canceling a meeting he had planned to have with leaders from the forestry industry last year. The first planned meeting in July was delayed due to a personal family situation of Shannon’s, while the second meeting planned for the Fall of 2010 was canceled after Shannon received a call from Kathy Holt with Gov. Beebe’s office asking that the meeting be delayed until after the 2010 election.
Matt DeCample confirmed that delay this morning saying that it was due to the potential for tax increase discussions, not the concern of the funding shortfall issues.
“We felt that a meeting to discuss a tax increase amid a very strong anti-tax climate would not have been productive and would have instead been politicized. If legislators feel that this assessment was incorrect and would like to discuss a tax increase on timber, we will meet with them to have that discussion,” said DeCample.
“Finding new revenue for the Forestry Commission for the future was the driver behind that meeting, not the severity of the current shortfall and depletion of the trust fund. If we had known that the Commission was already to the point where they were no longer able to operate within their means, we would have addressed it during budget hearings and this year’s legislative session. When we did learn about it this fall, we took immediate action.”