Pine Bluff Alderman George Stepps, (left), points to Mayor Debe Hollingsworth as he speaks during the Tuesday City Council meeting about the ordinances that require department heads to live in the city limits but who have in recent years been hired without the law being recognized. (Special to The Commercial/William Harvey)
Mayor Debe Hollingsworth survived the first legislative battle of her administration at Tuesday night’s Pine Bluff City Council meeting when the panel deadlocked in its vote on a controversial residency requirement resolution. But there may not have been a real victory in the process.
Alderman George Stepps’ proposed resolution called for Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks and three other department heads to immediately establish residency within the city or be terminated. The disagreement on whether a 2000 ordinance on residency restrictions for all department administrators and a 2002 ordinance focusing solely on police officers should be followed on Hubanks erupted soon after he was appointed by Hollingsworth on Jan. 1.
The question of which ordinance trumps the other wasn’t clarified by the council’s decision, although City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott’s opinion is that the original legislation rules. But at least for the time being, while the council undertakes an effort to either strike down the old measures, drop one and amend the other, combine the two or draft new guidance, Hubanks and his counterparts don’t have to move.
Hubanks resides in Cleveland County. City Collector Albert Ridgell, Animal Shelter Director Brandon Southerland and Inspection and Zoning Department Director Robert Tucker live in Little Rock, near White Hall and in Redfield, respectively.
The vote followed a round of lively discussion. In the end, Stepps was joined by Alderwoman Thelma Walker and Aldermen Charles Boyd and Glen Brown in favoring the measure while Aldermen Bill Brumett, Wayne Easterly, Lloyd Holcomb Jr. and Steven Mays united in opposition.
Hollingsworth indicated she would break the tie with a nay, but decided not to vote when Brumett told her the split actually represented the resolution’s rejection.
Holcomb, a minister, initiated debate, calling the matter “a delicate situation.”
“I didn’t sign up to fight,” said Holcomb, a freshman legislator who replaced his mother, Irene Holcomb, who had served 24 years as the council’s senior member. “I signed up to be a councilman to try to make things a little better.”
Holcomb said that according to Hadden-Scott, both Hollingsworth and past mayor Carl A. Redus Jr. had done wrong in some hiring practices.
“Nobody’s going to win in this situation if this is not handled correctly,” said Holcomb. “Two wrongs don’t make a right.”
Hollingsworth agreed and bemoaned the fact that four persons could lose their jobs if Stepps’ measure was approved. However, that might not have been the case as resolutions are considered non-binding. An adopted ordinance is defined as law.
Mays said the council should have been spending more time “bringing in better jobs to our citizens” instead of jousting over the the two ordinances. He suggested that the pieces be merged with rewording that “as of today,” all newly-hired employees would be required to reside within the city.
“I’m like Alderman Holcomb,” said Mays. “I didn’t come here to fight. We’re wasting a lot of time.”
Like Holcomb, Mays was applauded by many in an audience estimated at 75 to 90 persons.
Boyd suggested that Stepps’ resolution be softened to allow up to six months for Ridgell, Southerland and Tucker to decide to move or resign, and require immediate relocation only of Hubanks.
“We’ve beat this horse to death,” said Brumett, calling for the establishment of a new ordinance to curtail the discord.
Stepps engaged in a brief exchange with Brumett and the mayor over Brumett’s role in “advising” Hollingsworth in Hubanks’ hiring. Stepps blamed much of the dispute on “miscommunication” involving Hollingsworth.
“I’m not against you and will never disrespect you, but we have to communicate,” he told the mayor, adding that friction sparked by the disagreement causes “it to look like (he and others) are trying to cause confusion, but we’re not. There’s no conflict (between the existing ordinances). That’s what the city attorney says.”
Walker echoed Stepps, repeating that the council “can’t change law to fit what it wants.” Walker’s statement had previously been contested by Easterly, who said Walker and some other council members recently altered legislation to favor an unnamed police department employee who was facing discipline.
“You did it in executive session, and I refused to participate,” said Easterly***.
Hadden-Scott said the Arkansas Municipal League’s legal staff agrees with her on the original ordinance’s dominance, but that she shares the Municipal League’s opinion that the city might be facing lawsuits if it establishes a pattern of disregarding its legislation.
“We already have,” said Hollingsworth. “The past administration and the past council started doing that about five or six years ago. It’s called ‘practices and customs.’ The law needs to be amended so the matter of practices and customs won’t be in place.”
Walker reiterated her view after the vote.
“It’s a sad day when some people want to ignore what the city attorney says because it’s not what you want to hear,” Walker said.
In other business, the council unanimously approved five ordinances and two resolutions.
• Revised the fire department’s policy, procedure and guidelines manual (three separate items).
• Adopted the 2012 edition of the International Existing Building Code as city guidance.
• Authorized a short-term financing agreement on the acquisition of three new vehicles — trucks for the maintenance and animal control departments and a compact car for the inspection and zoning department.
• Appointed Win Trafford to the advertising and promotion commission.
• Declared certain houses, buildings and/or structures as nuisances and ordered their abatement.
An ordinance aimed at amending current legislation on speed breakers or bumps was sent to the traffic operations committee for additional consideration. A resolution calling for the renaming of Catalpa Street from Sixth to 13th avenues was tabled for more discussion.
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*** This article has been corrected from its original version to fix an incorrect quote attribution. Click here to view the correction notice.