Ward 1 Alderwoman Thelma Walker on Tuesday brushed aside a series of allegations made against her in an open letter from November general election challenger the Rev. Jesse C. Turner.
Turner emailed the letter — addressed to Walker — to news organizations July 11, stating that to date in 2014 she has not convened a meeting of the Pine Bluff City Council Community Development Committee, which she chairs. He alleged that by meeting so infrequently, problems that have cost the city money might have been caught early.
“If she had met on a regular basis maybe the issues that led up to the misuse of U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development money could have been red-flagged and stopped,” Turner said.
“I don’t call meetings just to meet,” Walker said in response. “I believe that the committee last met in the early part of this year.”
Walker said that Turner’s request for a probe into the potential misuse of HUD funds by the administration of Mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. was politically motivated.
“Turner is the one that initiated this probe with HUD that resulted in repaying the money,” Walker said. “He had been talking about this because he did not like the previous administration. I’m not saying everything was done completely right as far as the HUD money is concerned, but I don’t think it was done intentionally to disobey the law.”
“It seems to me that her being over community development, she would be a little more supportive of my organization (Interested Citizens for Voter Registration Inc.) looking into the potential misuse of tax dollars,” Turner said.
Walker said that it is important to note that no criminal wrongdoing was found.
“It’s not like the money was embezzled,” Walker said. “The money that was used to build the CASA shelter wasn’t supposed to be used in that way, it turns out, but it was for a good cause.”
At its May 5, 2014, meeting, the council approved a resolution authorizing a repayment schedule for reimbursing the federal government for disallowed HUD expenditures identified in its 2013 audit.
The city must repay $358,408 to the Community Development Block Grant program and take a total grant reduction of $308,977 to the HOME program as part of the HUD settlement.
Turner said that Walker had made a promise in March 2013 yet to be fulfilled to find out what the city regulations are concerning how long a house must remain abandoned before the city can tear it down.
Turner said that the conversation in question took place when Walker was the guest speaker for a Coffee with the Chiefs meeting March 5, 2013, at St. Paul Baptist Church.
“As I recall there was no promise,” Walker said Tuesday. “I normally don’t make promises unless I know that I can keep them. I don’t remember the conversation verbatim, but as I remember it was just a discussion about the best ways to deal with the situation.”
Walker said that she is committed to serving the people of Ward 1 as well as the rest of Pine Bluff’s citizens.
“I’m going to continue to work as hard as I can to do all that I can for the residents of Pine Bluff,” Walker said.
Turner said in his letter that one of the byproducts of failing to have regular committee meetings is the continued problem with abandoned houses reducing property values.
Walker pointed to an ordinance that she sponsored that passed the city council in March that eliminates the requirement for a person to get a residential contractor license even if doing work on their own home.
“This is what people have been asking for,” Walker said immediately before the March 17 vote. “This will help the city to deal with many of the rundown houses in town by making it easier for people to make improvements to the homes that they own.”
In his letter, Turner said that he believed the location of the new children’s splash park at Saracen Landing is unsafe and asked Walker if she had a hand in choosing the site between Pullen Street and the south shore of Lake Saracen.
“I did not play any part in the location of the splash pad,” Walker said Tuesday. “Initially, I thought it was a bad location as well, but now that it has come to fruition and I went to meetings and learned how it was going to be, my concerns have been addressed.”
Walker said that a metal security fence will keep children in the park and adults will be able to supervise their children while in the park.
“The children are not going to be endangered,” Walker said.
Walker defeated Milton Jenkins in the Democratic primary for the Ward 1 seat. Turner has said he will file to run for Ward 1 as an independent. The filing period starts Friday, July 25. No one else has sent an announcement to The Commercial that they plan to run for the seat.