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Jingle Bells, Townsell Tales, The Cabin Laid An Egg

Updated: Apr 13

A replica of Conway's Christmas tree.

A replica of Conway’s Christmas tree.

Apparently I upset some people with my story about Conway’s new 54-foot, $130,000 Christmas tree: the local paper here in town, The Log Cabin Democrat, has not one but two stories in their Sunday edition today that take aim at my coverage of the con-tree-versy. For whatever reason, they decided to dedicate quite a bit of column space to attempt to debunk some of the claims about the purchase of the gargantuan tannenbaum  — but strangely, they attempt to debunk claims that I never actually made. The first story begins with a bang:

An online alternative news website’s story claiming that Conway illegally or improperly “amended the city code” to purchase its Christmas tree from an Arkansas vendor has been making the social media rounds this week.

(I don’t know what an “alternative news website” is, but hey, at least we’re stars on social media.) The author, Joe Lamb, continues:

The Arkansas Project story also claims that the purchase violated Conway Municipal Code § 3.04.02.

However, these allegations of allegations are flatly false. What I actually said was:

…the city council voted in August to carve out an exemption to the competitive bidding requirement for Get Lit.

That is in fact what the city did — they exempted this purchase from the bidding requirement. To my knowledge, that’s what you call it when you pass an ordinance that overrides an existing law and allows one company/transaction to operate outside of the standard rules. In fact, the title of their ordinance is “An ordinance waiving competitive bids for the purchase of holiday Christmas decor…” Waiving, exempting. Most people consider these words to be synonymous. Here’s another quote from my original story:

So, why did the city amend the law and make a special exception for this company?

See what I did there? I used another word that’s generally considered to be synonymous with “waiving:” exception. I also said the city amended the law, not violated it. In my view, those are very different things. Apparently this distinction is lost on the Cabin. And they weren’t done with me yet! The Cabin also ran a gem of an editorial on this subject. Here’s a taste:

And then there were claims that the tree was not only wrong or bad or foolish, but full-on illegal. There was an online story by the Arkansas Project…

Once again, this claim of a claim is bogus. What I actually said is that the city exempted this purchase from competitive bidding — a premise that no one seems to dispute. (Oh, and by the way, it’s public record.) The only part of my story that might need updating is my claim that the city’s regular policy is to accept bids on projects over $10,000. According to the Cabin’s great investigative work, apparently the city passed an ordinance in 2010 that was intended to make their bidding requirements mirror the requirements set forth by the state. According to Mayor Tab Townsell and City Attorney Mike Murphy, this new ordinance (O-10-125) “repeals by implication” the old ordinance that required bids on items of more than $10,000 and replaces it with a new threshold of $20,000. Now, the ordinance they cite doesn’t spell out the new bidding policy, but it does adopt “City of Conway Purchasing Policies and Procedure.” According to the Cabin, this new policy says the city will use the state’s guidelines for bidding. This also, according to their report, gives the city the leeway to waive bidding when they want: the state provides a provision for city’s to waive the bidding requirements “in exceptional situations where this procedure is deemed not feasible or practical,” per A.C.A. § 14-58-303 (b)(1)(B). I haven’t been able to find a copy of the new policy online, but I’ve requested a copy from the city. Assuming the Cabin’s categorization of the new policy is correct, I’d be happy to concede the point that the city’s bidding threshold is set at $20,000 instead of $10,000 because 1. I never alleged the city did anything illegal and 2. This doesn’t change the fact that the city did waive bidding, which was one of my main concern from the beginning, due to the lack of transparency and excess cost to the taxpayers. The Cabin should’ve known what my main concerns were which is why their claims against The Arkansas Project are so bizarre. How might they have known, you ask? I listed them in my original story (notably absent from the list: a claim that the city had broken the law). All of these concerns still stand and, to my knowledge, none of these concerns have been publicly disputed by the city or the Cabin:

1. The city’s competitive bidding requirement was circumvented for the benefit of one particular company

2. A quick Google search reveals multiple comparable Christmas trees for about half the price of the one sold by Get Lit

3. Whoever is benefiting, it sure isn’t the taxpayers

I’m just thinking out loud, but perhaps the Cabin’s time would be better spent getting answers to these concerns rather than putting words in my mouth. So far, they don’t seem to be that worried about the concerns I actually raised in my story (although they did like concern #2) — they’re mostly worried about the concerns I didn’t raise. And since the Cabin seems to be desperate for story ideas, here’s a tip: there might be a pretty good story buried in the mayor’s evolving explanations for why competitive bidding was waived in the first place. He originally said the purchase was exempted from bidding because of “time constraints,” but now says it was “waived because of the practical advantages of buying from an Arkansas company.” I suppose both answers could be acceptable, but the Cabin doesn’t appear to be interested in examining these different excuses explanations that were printed in their own paper. They’re apparently more interested in trying to smear me. Regardless of their motivations, this effort is a great distraction from the real issues at hand.

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