Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

EDITORIAL>>Roberts sets an example

Hereís a small news item that missed the regular prints last month: Admirers of the marvelous work of Bobby Roberts, the director of the Central Arkansas Library System, conducted a broad but muted fund-raising effort to outfit a conference hall in the new Arkansas Studies Institute and name it after Roberts. The institute, which will be in a renovated old building on President Clinton Avenue in Little Rock, was one of many library projects undertaken with Robertsí vision and genius. It will be a historical research center like none other in Arkansas and rarely matched in the country.

But Roberts got wind of the plan ó the dedication was to be a surprise ó and ordered a halt to the fund-raising and the memorial. All the money that was raised was returned with apologies. Thanks but no thanks, the director said. Quietly, letters went out from Roberts to everyone who had received the solicitations saying that he deemed it inappropriate to memorialize a public official for doing his job. He might have added, especially when heís still alive and running the show.

And we happen to believe that Roberts deserves a monument someday for turning the moribund metropolitan library system into one of the finest, most accessible in the United States. We mention the episode merely to ask, what if that had been a Huckabee instead of Roberts? What a contrast with Arkansasís First Couple. Bobby Roberts did not need to be reminded what public duty is or what grace in public office means. With the Huckabees, ceaseless reminders never take. Recall what has happened in the past few weeks.

The state Game and Fish Commission, whose members all were appointed by Mike Huckabee, dedicated two elaborate nature centers, built with public funds along the Arkansas River, one at Pine Bluff named after the governor, the other at Fort Smith after his wife. Thanks, taxpayers for that sales tax money! Big new signs have gone up on the public byways (supplied again by taxpayers with the help of another Huckabee-appointed state commission) pointing motorists the way to the Mike Huckabee and Janet Huckabee nature centers.

A giant new hall built next door to the renovated and greatly enlarged Governorís Mansion, was dedicated and named for, who else?, Janet Huckabee. It is inscribed ďThe Janet M. Huckabee Grand Hall.Ē The Arkansas Times blog revealed that the Huckabees had registered on the Dillardís Department Store and Target store wedding registries for some $7,000 in furnishings for their new $525,000 home in North Little Rock, where they will move when the governorís term ends in January. Huckabee assures us that it was not his or his wifeís idea but that of several friends of Mrs. Huckabee. They hope the coupleís many friends will want to pitch in to make sure that the big new home is furnished in a style to which the Huckabees have become accustomed. During their residency in the stateís official quarters, the place where Sid McMath hung his panama hat 55 years ago, has been refurbished, enlarged, decorated and furnished far more elaborately than all its previous occupants enjoyed.

The Arkansas Governorís Mansion Association, a quasi-private organization run presently by friends of the governor, donated to the couple for their new home 20 sets of three-piece crystal place settings and china place settings worth up to $11,000. The head of the association, Sally Stevens, is the Republican designee on the state Board of Election Commissioners and a former GOP member of the Pulaski County Election Commission. Stevensí term on the association board ends in two years.

The gifts are Arkansasí way of saying thanks for the job that Mrs. Huckabee did elevating the style of living for the first couple. No, we can never thank her enough for using so much public and private money to make life much more pleasurable for the Huckabees and, we hasten to add, their successors.

Wedding gifts are exempt from the state ethics ban on expensive gifts to public officials, but simply because the gifts requested by the Huckabees are listed on a wedding registry does not mean they are exempt. It may depend on when the Huckabees actually claim the gifts, before or after he becomes a private citizen again. But let us assume that all the gifts are legal. No doubt they are. After 10 years of expense-free living on the taxpayersí tab and on what has become a nice salary (roughly $80,000 a year plus six-figure additives for book sales driven by his public office), the Huckabees do not need philanthropy. There have been too many of these tasteless episodes the past 10 years, starting with the governorís misuse of Mansion operating funds for personal use, his effort to claim as his own a businessmanís elaborate gifts of furnishings for the official quarters and his and his wifeís extensive use of State Police law-enforcement planes for their personal and political use. It may be legal, but it is tawdry ó although we wish Mrs. Huckabee a speedy recovery from double knee-replacement surgery. Hereís hoping the Mansion staff pampers her while she recuperates.