Tempers flared in a Tuesday afternoon Pine Bluff City Council Administration Committee discussion of a proposed ordinance outlining residency requirements for the city’s department heads.
When the smoke cleared, the measure — due for a second reading at Monday night’s full council session — received a do-pass recommendation in a 2-1 vote.
At one point during the hour-long conference, committee member Alderman Wayne Easterly left his chair in the mayor’s conference room and threatened to walk out. Easterly was protesting comments from Alderman George Stepps, who Easterly said was straying from the meeting agenda in confronting Alderman Bill Brumett over Brumett’s recent public criticism of Stepps, Alderman Glen Brown and Alderwoman Thelma Walker for having failed to attend any of Mayor Debe Hollingsworth’s four monthly town hall meetings.
Brumett — observing the panel’s meeting along with Brown, Stepps and Walker — backed away from a table and indicated he was ready to depart as well. At the urging of committee member Alderman Lloyd Holcomb Jr. and Hollingsworth, Brumett and Easterly remained as the conversation reverted to the ordinance.
The generally quiet Holcomb, a minister, suddenly decided to wade into the debate. He said the bickering that has dominated the topic since Jeff Hubanks — a Cleveland County resident — was named interim chief on Jan 1, Hollingsworth’s first day in office, has not been necessary.
“You’re either for it or against it,” Holcomb said of the ordinance, sponsored by Alderman Steven Mays, that seeks to “grandfather” current department heads of any restrictions while requiring future department heads to reside within 12 miles of the city.
Holcomb said council members don’t need to air their personal disagreements “on Facebook or in the public.”
“We know what needs to be said,” Holcomb said, nodding toward Hollingsworth and glancing at Stepps. “Whether you like it or not, this lady is mayor at least until 2016.”
Questioned by Stepps, Holcomb admitted that he had earlier stated that he “didn’t want the (police) chief living out of the city.” As Holcomb started to elaborate, Stepps attempted to silence him. Holcomb stood as he began to almost shout. The two briefly exchanged words before Holcomb eased and said, “If I vote one way, I’m a racist, and if I vote the other way, I’m an Uncle Tom.”
Obviously upset at the moment, Holcomb told a reporter that he didn’t want to see some of his remarks in “tomorrow’s paper” or he might come “looking for” the reporter. After the meeting, Holcomb and the reporter spoke and Holcomb said he understood persons can’t request comments to be “off the record” after they’re made in a public meeting, and simply requesting such discretion doesn’t guarantee it.
After Easterly motioned for a do-pass and was seconded by Holcomb. Easterly asserted that the city can’t constitutionally dictate to anyone where they “must” live and Holcomb said businesses and industries looking at potentially locating here shy away after witnessing “the foolishness at council meetings.”
Stepps, who has steadily suggested that department heads be required to reside within city limits and on occasion has said the same rule should apply to all municipal workers, questioned Hollingsworth’s reasoning in hiring Hubanks. Stepps said he had reviewed the records of the police department’s five top-ranking incumbent officers after the dismissal of former Chief Brenda Davis-Jones. and each was “more qualified” than Hubanks.
Stepps said the mayor selected Hubanks because the retired lieutenant was “her pick.” Hollingsworth and Brumett replied that under council-established city law, the mayor is empowered with appointing police and fire chiefs.
The mayor said, too, that at the time of Davis-Jones’ firing, she did not want to hire a chief from inside the “infested department.” Brown and Stepps were angered by her statement. Hollingsworth said she had used the word “infested” in lieu of “dysfunctional,” which she charged the department had become under Davis-Jones.
Brown was allowed to speak by Stepps several times, but by the meeting’s final moments, Stepps’ patience was wearing thin and he and Brown had words when Stepps tried to quiet him. Brown said that the residency ordinance was a “selfish decision” by Hollingsworth.
“I’ve never made a selfish decision,” Brown said.
After he said the legislation, if adopted, could cost the city “a million dollars,” he added, “There are some things I should know that I don’t know.”
Walker reasoned that since the mayor is required to live within the city and council members must reside in the wards they represent, department heads “should have to live in the city, too. If it’s good for us, why not them?”
“We’re elected officials and they’re employees,” replied Hollingsworth.
Walker said that’s what she was saying.
“We’re paying them for a service,” Hollingsworth said.
Before the meeting adjourned, participants exchanged apologies.