Legislature’s review of audit stalls proposed raise for Arkansas PBS CEO

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The Arkansas House of Representatives.

Legislators have postponed a decision to give Arkansas PBS’ leader a pay increase amid a review of the network’s procurement practices.

Arkansas PBS CEO Courtney Pledger was set to receive a 5% merit pay increase that would make her salary $188,998. The new salary would be approximately $32,000 more than the maximum salary for her pay grade, requiring approval from legislators.

At a meeting Wednesday, a personnel subcommittee postponed consideration of the raise until after hearings regarding a legislative audit of the Arkansas PBS Commission’s procurement practices. The fiscal year 2022 audit, released in February, found that the commission had circumvented and violated state procurement law.

Auditors reviewed the network’s dealings with 10 vendors. They found that the commission had made multiple purchases just below the $20,000 bidding threshold. It also contracted with two companies owned by the same person. Bids are required when goods and services are obtained from the same company, auditors said.

Auditors also said the commission showed signs of regularly informing vendors how much they would be paid for goods and services. “While this practice does not appear to violate a specific purchasing law, it raises the question of whether a vendor would have charged less had the Agency not provided this information,” the audit said.

A subgroup of the legislature’s Joint Auditing Committee questioned Arkansas PBS administrators during an Aug. 10 meeting. “To me, this looks like a good ole boy system going on,” said Republican Rep. Justin Gonzales. “It may not be, and I hope it’s not, but the optics of this are pretty terrible.”

Pledger told the committee that Arkansas PBS had not intended to circumvent state law. “Nothing has changed our commitment to compliance,” she said. “We recognize these audit findings and are finding ways to address [them].”

Karen Watkins, deputy director of finance and administration with Arkansas PBS, told the committee that she does not suspect fraud at the network. She acknowledged that “it looks fishy” to enter into agreements with two companies that share an owner.

“We’ve had a lot of internal discussions about this,” she said. “It will not be happening in the future.”

Gonzales moved to continue reviewing the audit, which the committee approved. It will take up the audit again at a Sept. 7 meeting.

At the personnel meeting Wednesday, Republican Rep. Dan Sullivan asked the state’s personnel director to provide information about guidelines used to assess the performance of the station’s leader. In a July 7 letter to the state’s Office of Personnel Management, Arkansas PBS Commission Chair David Westbrook Doss Jr. gave Pledger a top rating of 5 for her work and recommended a salary increase.

Sullivan also requested information about how many of the station’s employees had been fired or resigned in the past year, adding that he had observed turnover at the network. Last year, state legislators unanimously approved a $27,418 increase in Pledger’s salary of $152,582 at the time to make her compensation more competitive with other Southern states, according to the Arkansas Advocate. The Advocate noted that Pledger was a finalist at the time for the CEO role at Louisiana Public Broadcasting but that she later withdrew her candidacy.

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