A volunteer review committee responsible for screening applicants and selecting finalists for the Pine Bluff police chief’s post altered its lineup Wednesday as recommended by Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, who has hiring and firing authority over city department leaders.
The mayor was to have presided over the committee, which included her chief aide, Evelyn Horton. But in an effort to avoid possible suggestions of impropriety, Hollingsworth felt she and Horton should step away from the evaluation process. Filling their seats will be a local businessman or woman who will serve as a moderator, and a former police chief in an Arkansas city of comparable size to Pine Bluff who will be a voting member of the committee.
Hollingsworth said she hopes to have a moderator and former chief “on board” in time for the committee’s next meeting, slated for Wednesday, Sept. 4, in the library of First United Methodist Church, which is where the panel met Wednesday. Current committee members are retirees Wanda Neal and Doug Smith, the Rev. Kerry Price and the Rev. Jesse Turner. Hollingsworth, Neal and Price are former members of the now-defunct Pine Bluff Civil Service Commission.
The mayor said she wants the participation of a former police chief so he or she can help in looking at the demographics of the cities in which the 42 applicants for the local job have law enforcement experience. Hollingsworth, who believes it might be best that finalists have knowledge of agencies of similar size, said she would make certain that a consulting former chief would have no bias toward either promoting from within or going outside the department “in picking the best person for the job.”
“I want to make sure that we do our homework,” the mayor told the committee. “I want to ensure the fairness of the process, and that’s another reason I want to bring in a retired chief from elsewhere. I know that you have the city first and foremost in your hearts and I value your opinions, but I would like another set of eyes also looking at the applicants and helping with the selection.
“I want to make sure this is done correctly,” she said. “I want this to be totally fair.”
Price agreed with Hollingsworth, but warned that no matter how evenhanded the committee’s efforts might be, some disapproval may be voiced.
“I think we’ll get flak either way,” said Price, a former Pine Bluff police officer. “But I’m ready for it.”
Turner said he believes citizens will be satisfied with the “flavor of fairness” being brought to the selection process. Smith condoned the mayor’s wishes, but cautioned that while a committee of five is viable, a larger number might be “too many.”
“I want this to be a collaborative effort,” Hollingsworth said. “I’m not the only person who will be affected by the choice of a new chief.”
Turner told the mayor that her choice of a chief will be “the most important decision” she’s made since taking office in January after a landslide victory over eight opponents — including then- incumbent mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. — in November. Turner said Hollingsworth’s decision will “impact everyone” because of the “importance of public safety” in business and industry recruitment.
The committee is eventually to whittle the applicant field to three finalists who then will be considered by the city council’s public safety committee, chaired by Alderman Wayne Easterly and also including aldermen Bill Brumett and George Stepps. The panel will make a recommendation to the mayor, who will have the final say on who will be offered the job.
Price said he hopes the selected applicant will accept the job and “stay a while.”
“We want someone who will help this city move forward and keep the morale high (among police officers),” he said, agreeing with his fellow committee members and the mayor that the mental and emotional health of officers is vital in their protection of the public and themselves.