The Arkansas Legislature’s investigative committee will file an ethics complaint against Central Arkansas’ public water utility over a staff email advocating against controversial affirmative action legislation earlier this year.
The email in question was sent by Central Arkansas Water’s “justice, equity, diversity and inclusion” team in March, urging utility employees to ask their state representatives to oppose Senate Bill 71.
Tuesday’s Joint Performance Review meeting and the motion that was approved came at the behest of Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, who sponsored the failed legislation to end affirmative action in state government.
While several lawmakers acknowledged that CAW CEO Tad Bohannon took timely and appropriate action in March, Tuesday’s hearing extended beyond the spring email with legislators peppering Bohannon and other CAW leaders with questions about charitable giving by the utility, individual projects and the makeup of the utility’s board.
The committee approved Sullivan’s motion to file a complaint with the Arkansas Ethics Commission regarding “potential violations of law” pertaining to CAW’s lobbying and donation activity while SB71 was being debated in the Legislature.
Bohannon said the “inflammatory” email was sent by CAW’s “JEDI” group that formed in the wake of the George Floyd protests in 2020. He said the group’s email was immediately shut down after the anti-SB71 message.
CAW, Bohannon said, values passionate employees, and sometimes “passion gets the best of them,” as it did in the March email.
“That is not their role. That is not their purpose. That is not what they’re supposed to do,” he told lawmakers.
The committee also questioned Bohannon about roughly $118,000 in contributions the utility made last fiscal year to nonprofit organizations, asking whether that was a proper use of ratepayer dollars.
That money represents less than 1% of CAW’s annual $78.3 million operating budget, and Bohannon said much of those contributions went to groups that allowed CAW to reach out to communities that it may not have opportunities to reach otherwise. It opened the door, for example, to discuss water issues, like the advantages of using tap water over bottled water.
Lawmakers hinted that there might be broader discussions in the future about limiting nonprofit contributions by government entities.
CAW services municipalities and unincorporated areas of Pulaski, Saline and Grant counties, including Little Rock, North Little Rock, Sherwood and Maumelle.
The utility formed in 2001 with the merger of Little Rock’s and North Little Rock’s municipal water departments. It has expanded in the two decades since, but its board of directors remains composed of appointees from Little Rock and North Little Rock.
Several lawmakers questioned the fairness of that composition for ratepayers who live outside of those two cities and lack representation.
Bohannon said it wasn’t uncommon in the state for water customers to live in a place where their local government doesn’t have a seat on the utility’s governing board.