What had been a typical meeting of the Pine Bluff City Council Monday night swiftly became anything but as Mayor Debe Hollingsworth dramatically adjourned the gathering before it had even reached its halfway point.
Hollingsworth was becoming increasingly frustrated with a line of questioning being pursued by Third Ward Alderman Glen Brown during the Council’s consideration of an ordinance sponsored by Fourth Ward Alderman Steven Mays calling for increased video surveillance of known illegal dumping sites in Pine Bluff.
“The discussion was going on and then I ended the discussion because we were getting into procedural matters that had nothing to do with the ordinance being considered,” Hollingsworth said in a telephone conversation after Monday’s meeting. “Alderman Brown was wanting to clarify the procedure but that is something that can be discussed after the ordinance is passed.”
The procedural matter Hollingworth referenced had to do with an allegation made by members of the Westside Loop Neighborhood Watch Association, who were present to voice their support for the Mays ordinance.
“We have been working very hard to gather evidence of the people who are dumping illegally in our neighborhood,” Westside member Ora Mays told the council. “We have provided the Pine Bluff Police Department with license plate numbers and photos of people who are dumping. We want to know what the city is doing to follow up on what we have provided to them.”
Brown was joined by First Ward Alderwoman Thelma Walker and Fourth Ward Alderman George Stepps in believing that a discussion of whether the PBPD had followed up on the evidence provided by the Westside Association was relevant.
“There are some things in here where Westside has given their information to the proper authorities and nothing has been done,” Stepps said.
Mays attempted to clarify sections of his proposed ordinance.
“This is a law that would repeal all other anti-dumping laws that would conflict with it and keep what isn’t conflicting,” Mays said. “All in all it’s a good ordinance. The main difference between my ordinance and the existing law is the provision for installing video surveillance cameras.”
Hollingsworth said that despite concerns voiced by members of the council regarding whether the PBPD followed up on evidence regarding illegal dumping suspects, the ordinance itself would not affect that issue.
“We absolutely need to find out what has been done in regards to following up by the PBPD but we don’t have to figure that out tonight,” Hollingsworth said. “This ordinance would establish the law and set out penalty guidelines for judges. You’ve got to have something that is enforceable on the books.”
Stepps said he was not comfortable leaving the issue until later.
“I don’t have a problem with passing this ordinance but I do have a problem with information being given to the police and then nothing being done,” Stepps said.
At that point Hollingsworth called for an end to the discussion and asked City Clerk Loretta Whitfield to conduct a roll call vote on Mays’ proposed ordinance.
Brown interjected and said that he still had the floor, which prompted Hollingsworth to loudly bang her gavel several times.
“I am telling you to stop talking,” Hollingsworth said to Brown. “If you continue I will adjourn this meeting.”
“I have the floor, Mayor,” Brown said again, which led Hollingsworth to once again bang her gavel.
“This meeting is adjourned!” Hollingsworth said with obvious anger in her voice.
“She [Hollingsworth] gave me permission to speak,” Brown said immediately after the meeting’s end. “She can’t just adjourn a meeting like that; it’s in the Arkansas Municipal Code. That gavel doesn’t mean anything. She gave me permission to speak. Once a person gets the floor he or she has it until they yield.”
Walker was very clear in her opinion on the way the meeting ended.
“The mayor acted illegally,” Walker said. “She adjourned the meeting unilaterally. She broke the law.”
Stepps said Police Chief Jeff Hubanks should have been allowed to speak to the council about the alleged failure of his department to act on dumping information provided by the Westside Association.
“The [Mays] ordinance is a good ordinance and we were going to pass it,” Stepps said. “I think the fact that people gave information to the police department should have been addressed by Chief Hubanks. Mayor Hollingsworth doesn’t have the authority to end a City Council meeting like that without a motion and a second. The ordinance would have passed. We just wanted the information.”
Assistant City Attorney Joe Childers provided some background on the law surrounding a mayor’s actions as the presiding officer of City Council meetings.
“The City of Pine Bluff has adopted the Arkansas Municipal League’s procedural rules,” Childers said. “Usually any decision of the mayor can be appealed by a two-thirds vote of the City Council, but as far as what happened tonight goes, unless the council objected before they left there is not anything that can be done about it now. There is nothing that prohibits a mayor from unilaterally adjourning a council meeting, but it is not traditional.”
Childers said there is some precedent for such actions.
“We usually have a motion and a second to adjourn council meetings but I can remember a few times when that did not happen when they were in a hurry to leave,” Childers said.
Hollingsworth said that she does have the authority to take the action that she took Monday night.
“I have the authority to adjourn a meeting when I deem it to be necessary,” Hollingsworth said. “The discussion was not about the ordinance and it was getting out of hand. I could tell that some members of the Westside group were becoming agitated. One of the things that people have to understand is that if an elected official or a member of the community making comments gets to the point that they are creating a hostile environment then I have the authority to intervene in the situation.
“If you allow chaos to escalate you can’t get any business done,” Hollingsworth said. “You can’t allow that.”
Hollingsworth said the unaddressed agenda items from the Monday meeting will be added to the next meeting.
“I have a duty to maintain control over the council meetings,” Hollingsworth said.
Because no vote was taken on the Mays ordinance it will be among the agenda items at the Dec. 16 City Council meeting.