After a 90-minute-plus Friday afternoon session that may have seemed longer to some participants and spectators, the Pine Bluff City Council’s Administration Committee wound up largely finishing where it began.
The three-member committee, chaired by Alderman George Stepps and including Aldermen Wayne Easterly and Lloyd A. Holcomb Jr., ultimately decided to send a proposed resolution — calling for all city department heads to comply with residency requirements outlined in a 2000 ordinance — to the full council for discussion at the body’s Tuesday night meeting. But the Stepps-sponsored resolution had already been placed on Tuesday’s agenda, and thus would have been up for discussion anyway.
The full council and Mayor Debe Hollingsworth took part in the committee’s round-table discussion, which was conducted at times in an atmosphere seemingly more akin to a professional wrestling card rather than a government forum.
Before Holcomb’s motion for a full council discussion was endorsed with a second by Stepps, Easterly’s motion to abolish the questionable legislation died for lack of a second. About the only notion the council members and mayor agreed upon was a probability that the city will face litigation if some sort of favorable accord isn’t achieved.
Hollingsworth, after requesting and receiving permission to speak from Stepps, said the council should make itself aware of the legal phrase “practices and customs.” She illustrated her warning by pointing out the 2000 law and a 2002 ordinance on residency requirements solely for police department applicants and current uniformed personnel appear to conflict with one another, and that several department heads — including police chiefs — have been appointed free of adherence to either measure during the past decade.
Now, several council members want to not only enforce 2000 residency requirements on Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks, but also on veteran administrators Albert Ridgell, Brandon Southerland and Robert Tucker after “precedents have been set,” Hollingsworth said.
Ridgell, a Little Rock resident who oversees the city collector’s department, resides in Little Rock. Southerland, director of the animal shelter, lives “just outside of White Hall” near the intersection of highways 104 and 270. Tucker, who’s in charge of the inspection and zoning department, resides in Redfield. Each was hired under the 2000 ordinance, but Ridgell and Southerland claim they were never informed of a residency requirement. Tucker has not commented on the matter.
The mayor issued a stiff warning after explaining “practices and customs,” saying that without an amendment to or change of current city guidance, “We will open up our city to some of the biggest lawsuits ever. The potential is huge.
“It’s not me that created this problem,” she continued. “It will cost the past administration and past council a lot of money. Where we are today doesn’t have anything to do with the interim chief, and our taxpayers don’t want the liability of any more lawsuits.”
Hollingsworth received some applause from an audience of about 50 persons who seemed as divided as their elected officials.
“Some lawsuits are coming and we will pay out,” responded Stepps, who repeated accusations that Hollingsworth knew before naming him to the police post that Hubanks would not be eligible to serve under the 2000 ordinance since he’s a Cleveland County resident. Stepps charged that Hollingsworth had received “bad information” from her advisers, including senior Alderman Bill Brumett.
Stepps said that if the mayor felt that her predecessor, Carl A. Redus Jr., had acted improperly by not honoring the 2000 ordinance, she shouldn’t have “followed in the same footsteps.”
Hollingsworth countered that she had trusted in research she and her circle had conducted on the residency requirement issue and that some current council members had told her they did not know the measure had been previously violated. Stepps, echoed by three or four other council members, then asserted that Hollingsworth didn’t properly communicate with them on the issue.
“I communicate with everyone on this panel,” the mayor said. “I respect the council and want the same respect back.”
Stepps said he’s never “disrespected” Hollingsworth. He also related an incident in which former Police Chief Brenda Davis-Jones, who was fired Jan. 1 by Hollingsworth, was turned down by Redus and the council on a request to establish an out-of-town residence.
Easterly, in his plea to strike the 2000 measure from the city’s code of ordinances, again stated his uncertainty on whether an interim police chief should be subject to any residency restriction.
“He’s short-term at best,” Easterly said of a temporary appointee.
Easterly expressed frustration with the controversy, saying that “nothing was done” about previous administrators being hired despite being non-residents.
“Now, with this one hiring (of Hubanks), we’ve got a problem,” he said, adding that the council had given the mayor the authority to hire and fire police and fire chiefs before Hollingsworth took office, and if Redus had been allowed to appoint non-resident interim and permanent chiefs, Hollingsworth should have the same right.
Alderman Steven Mays suggested “drawing a line as of today” and disallowing the future hiring of department leaders who do not agree to live within the city. He also said the two ordinances could be combined into one. He said that without some sort of effort to settle the dispute, the matter “will continue to divide us.”
Alderman Glen Brown repeated his stance that department heads should live within the city so that taxpayers can “get a return on the salaries their taxes pay.” Ridgell, who had previously been silent on the matter, addressed the committee, saying he and his wife have a close relationship with the Little Rock School District and noting that his two sons had been taught by Brown’s wife there. Ridgell encouraged support for the mayor in her efforts to “turn the city around economically.”
“Why are we here?” Stepps then asked Ridgell. “We’re not here to support the mayor but to support the law.”
Several minutes later, Brown was given another opportunity to speak and issued support for Stepps.
“We must go by the law,” Brown said, adding that the mayor had “rushed” to her decision to appoint Hubanks. Referencing Ridgell’s remarks, Brown said that his wife works in Little Rock because she couldn’t get a teaching job in Pine Bluff.
Meanwhile, Easterly was displeased by the absence of City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott, who in a Jan.11 letter to the committee said that in her opinion, the 2000 ordinance trumped the 2002 measure and city law dictates that the police chief must be a Pine Bluff resident. However, Hollingsworth said, Hadden-Scott is in agreement with the Arkansas Municipal League’s “practices and customs” litigation concerns.
The meeting had a bumpy start when Stepps announced that despite what had been stated in The Commercial , no public comments would be received and anyone wishing to speak would have to wait until Tuesday’s full council session.
Several audience members sounded protests, and Brumett asked, “Since when did we start doing that?” Stepps answered, “Today.” But Stepps relented after challenges from and a brief verbal exchange with several citizens.
Dorothy Coleman urged that the council not “uproot people already working for the city.” Jerry Brasfield contended that a number of existing ordinances are not equally enforced, and anything less than blanket enforcement is unfair. Sam Whitfield countered that “the council didn’t cause this problem,” and blamed Hollingsworth for the disorder.
A woman whose name was not heard accused Stepps and his allies of “trying to impede the mayor from taking the path that she was empowered” to assume when elected.
“Stop the nonsense,” the woman said before telling Stepps, “You’re a day late and a dollar short” with “hate law” and “stupid law.”
Brown tapped his desk with his glasses in an effort to quiet the woman, who told him not to interrupt her.
“That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to open this up to public comment,” Stepps interjected.