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Hollingsworth receives mayoral baptism under fire


Debe Hollingsworth’s celebration after winning the November 2012 Pine Bluff mayoral race was short-lived.

Hollingsworth, a former state banking examiner and businesswoman, encountered resistance within hours of taking office on Jan. 1. Hollingsworth’s first year as the city’s chief executive has certainly presented her with a number of challenges.

The mayor’s collective experience over the past 12 months was voted the No. 3 local news story of 2013 by The Commercial’s newsroom staff.

Hollingsworth started her term by making good on a campaign promise to produce change in police department leadership. She fired controversial Chief Brenda Davis-Jones, who has since filed a lawsuit asserting she was a victim of racial and sexual discrimination. Hollingsworth then named retired PBPD Lt. Jeff Hubanks as interim chief.

But the Hubanks appointment added fuel to the fire of city council members supportive of Davis-Jones. Aldermen Glen Brown and George Stepps and Alderwoman Thelma Walker became frequent critics of the mayor and her actions.

Disagreement ignited over the dismissal as well as Hubanks’ hiring. Hubanks is a resident of neighboring Cleveland County, and questions were raised as to the legality of him serving in the post. The mayor and council were initially unable to reach accord over a pair of separate and apparently conflicting ordinances concerning residency requirements of city department heads.

The issue remained ongoing until June when a compromise ordinance qualifying Hubanks to serve as permanent chief was approved with Hollingsworth casting a tie-breaking vote. Hubanks had “interim” removed from his title on Oct. 4.

Later in June, the city was rocked by a federal Department of Housing and Urban Development disclosure that Pine Bluff’s Department of Economic and Community Development was determined in an audit to have improperly spent nearly $200,000 in HUD funds and failed to properly document an additional $279,000 in expenditures. The questionable actions occurred during the administration of Hollinsgworth’s predecessor, former mayor Carl A. Redus Jr.

The city was told it might have to repay HUD $479,069.12.

A few days later, Hollingsworth told The Commercial that she had requested the audit in March after she and her chief aide — Evelyn Horton — had uncovered information that created concern.

Local and federal officials met to hash out a final agreement on the matter, and Hollingsworth said in November that the city was weighing its options after being notified by HUD that it’s still expected to satisfy most of the stated debt.

The mayor was also tested when she twice fired City Collector Albert Ridgell, whose initial termination was overridden by the council. But a similar council challenge failed after Ridgell was dismissed a second time.

Hollingsworth met defeat on her plan to have the police department’s patrol division moved to The Pines shopping mall, but was able to steer a reorganization of the parks and recreation commission.